Regulators have given the go-ahead for younger teens to begin getting Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, which has raised questions for some parents who want to better understand how inoculation could affect their teenagers.
Pediatricians across the U.S. are fielding these questions, which range from whether the vaccine is even necessary for teens and children — they are in fact “effective transmitters” of the virus — to whether side effects will be that different from what adults experience.
“Chances are they’re going to do great with a vaccine, and they’re going to have really good protection,” says Dr. Michelle Medina, a pediatrician and a member of the Cleveland Clinic’s vaccines advisory committee, during a May 6 interview.
BioNTech SE /zigman2/quotes/214419716/composite BNTX +0.35% and Pfizer Inc.’s /zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite PFE +0.51% COVID-19 vaccine is the first one authorized for teens between the ages of 12 and 15. Teens in this age group began getting their shots on Thursday.
“The biggest concern that we hear about from parents [is that] these are young kids, with a long life ahead of them,” Medina said. “That’s always the thing that makes people hesitate. However, when you do weigh the potential risks versus the benefits, I think that scale still tips very heavily on the benefit side of things.”
MarketWatch: What may be different about using vaccines like the COVID-19 shots in younger populations? What’s different about the risk-benefit profile?
Dr. Michelle Medina: The first question that anybody asks is, are we seeing the same type of vaccine efficacy? The nice thing is the answer is, yes, and even more so. We’re seeing 100% vaccine efficacy , even against any COVID infection. That’s one way to measure it. The other way is to check to see, are they having any response serologically? That is when you do blood testing and you measure if it looks like they have evidence of immunity. Again, the answer is yes. With the Pfizer [vaccine], it seems like it’s even more robust than what we’re seeing with the young adults, [in the] 16- to 25-year-old group.
Right alongside that is, of course, the question that everybody will have in their mind, particularly parents: Is it safe to use? Again, the answer is yes. [It has the] same profile that we saw when they did the adult studies: local injection reactions, maybe some systemic reactions.
We do have data on some pediatric cases that were vaccinated already — more than 2 million 16- to 18-year-olds that had at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine. But within that 2 million group, there is not a lot that we see that actually makes us worry about any signal that is concerning for safety.
The biggest concern that we hear about from parents … is, these are young kids, with a long life ahead of them. Are we doing something now that may be harmful to them in the future? Anybody who knows the answer to that is speaking through a looking glass. We don’t know. That’s always the thing that makes people hesitate. However, when you do weigh the potential risks versus the benefits, I think that scale still tips very heavily on the benefit side of things.
We are still in the middle of a pandemic. Granted, we are fortunate in this country that we’re seeing declines [in the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths]. But remember: Those declines happened [as people got] vaccinated, on top of everything else we’ve been asked to do over the last year. This is why we’re not seeing our 80-year-olds ending up in hospitals intubated, in the ICU and dying. They were the first people vaccinated.
Now we’re seeing the illness strike our younger adult population because they’re still in the pipeline of getting vaccinated. In fact, we’re seeing a tremendous rise in pediatric COVID cases, as well. [Editor’s note: The American Academy of Pediatrics says that the number of pediatric COVID-19 cases climbed 4% between April 22 and May 5.] Maybe not pediatric hospitalizations, maybe not pediatric deaths. But if you’re worried about the long-term effects of a vaccine, think about the known long-term effects that we already know about COVID. It’s not just a lung disease. It’s a multi-organ disease.
We know that in children, even though they may not end up intubated, they will suffer potentially other systemic side effects that could also have long-term effects. So, again, weighing that scale, known benefits and known risks of getting COVID versus the theoretical risks, I would say the scales tip very heavily on that side as far as getting it.
MarketWatch: Pfizer has said they expect to have the first clinical data for children younger than 11 years old in September. How can parents prepare for the decision to vaccinate younger children?
Medina: Physiologically, a 12- to 16-year-old is actually different from a 16- to 18-year-old. The reason why we give childhood vaccines early and why we even give them before they even enter high school is because we know their responses to immunizations are much more robust.