Covid vaccine: UK making mistake by not vaccinating young children now, says expert as more countries jab kids
More countries around the world are ramping up their vaccination efforts by jabbing the very young with a Covid vaccine, raising questions whether the UK should do the same as infections increase among five- to nine-year-olds.
Peter English, former chairman of the British Medical Authority’s public health medicine committee, told i that the UK is making the same mistakes it did with teenagers in not vaccinating young age groups sooner.
Dr English said he believed the UK will certainly extend its vaccination drive to children from age five upwards but that it will “take time”.
“I am concerned we are repeating the mistake we made with 12- to 15-year-olds, we are waiting too long and being over precautious despite masses of evidence showing it’s safe,” Dr English said.
“We should’ve vaccinated five upwards already.”
Case rates in England are now highest among schoolchildren aged five to nine, according to new data, with the age group overtaking older, secondary school aged children for the first time.
“There is so much not being done in schools which bloody well should be,” said Dr English, adding that mask-wearing needed to be rigorously enforced and classrooms should have air filtration or ventilation systems in place.
“Having children going to school no matter the risks is shocking,” he added.
What countries are vaccinating young children?
The US extended its vaccination programme to children as young as five after the country’s Food and Drug Administration authorised the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for this age group in late October.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommended vaccinating young children earlier this month.
The European Medicines Agency has not licensed any Covid vaccine for use in children younger than 12, but Slovakia launched the Pfizer/BioNTech jab for vulnerable five- to 11-year-olds on 9 September. On Monday, Vienna city authorities became the first in the EU to begin inoculating all children between five and 11.
The EU medicines regulator said last month it had started evaluating the use of the Pfizer vaccine in the age group.
China authorised the use of its Sinovac vaccine on children as young as three in June, with those aged 12 to 17 getting their jabs first, followed by three- to 11-year-olds.
On Sunday, Israel – a world leader in vaccinating its population – announced that a campaign to jab 1.2 million children aged five to 11 will begin within days.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) rolled out the Sinopharm vaccine, another Chinese-made jab, to children aged three to 17, and this month the country approved the Pfizer shot for children aged five to 11 for emergency use.
Bahrain approved the Sinopharm vaccine for children aged three to 11 from 27 October, and on 2 November the Gulf state approved the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use for children aged between five and 11.
Other countries vaccinating children from the age of five or six include Malaysia, Indonesia, Chile, Ecuador and Cambodia, while Venezuela and Cuba are vaccinating children from age two with Cuban-developed vaccines.
What are the risks?
On Monday, Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, said the UK’s medicines watchdog has not authorised Covid jabs for under-11s, as it is yet to examine data for the age group.
“Let’s not rush our fences on this,” he said at a Downing Street press conference on Monday.
Dr English said he could not understand Professor Whitty’s comments, arguing that the UK was doing anything but rushing.
“We won’t be (rushing), we’d be looking at the data in the US and other countries. There’s a huge amount of data, I don’t know what the delay is.”
One dose, instead of the usual two given to adults, were offered to 12- to 15-year-olds after Professor Whitty said on 13 September that the age group should “on balance” be vaccinated.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) warned at the time that a first dose of vaccine carried a risk of three to 17 cases per million of the rare heart condition myocarditis after a first dose, which rose to 12 to 34 per million after a second dose.
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However, recent analysis from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) found the risk of myocarditis is nine cases per million after both jabs, prompting the JCVI to announce this week its recommendation for 16- and 17-year-olds to receive a second dose.
The UKHSA has recommended children aged 12 and over who have had Covid should not get a vaccine until 12 weeks later, saying deferring could help to reduce even further the “very, very small” risk of heart inflammation after vaccination.
What are the benefits?
A study by Pfizer found the vaccine was 91 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infection among five- to 11-year-olds, who were given a third of the dose given to teens and adults.
Some post-shot reactions included sore arms and fatigue, similar to teens and young adults but they were less likely to have fevers.
The FDA found no safety concerns and vaccinated youngsters developed levels of virus-fighting antibodies as strong as teens and young adults who had received the full-strength dose.
Pfizer and Moderna are now testing low doses in babies and children younger than five.
Dr English said previous studies on vaccines shows myocarditis is likely an autoimmune response among pre adolescents, and so the safest time to vaccinate is in younger age groups.
“We know an awful lot about vaccinations and how they work, we shouldn’t throw out what we know,” he added.
Case rates in England are now highest among schoolchildren aged five to nine