Health experts urge caution on giving Covid vaccines to UK children
By Robin McKie
Launching a programme of Covid-19 immunisations for children should be considered only in special circumstances, leading health experts have warned.
They say UK medical authorities, who are currently studying how vaccines for adolescents might be administered, should move with great care over the implementation of such a programme.
They acknowledge it could help reduce outbreaks and the spread of Covid but also warn it could also raise important practical and ethical problems. Doctors would be giving vaccines for which there was limited information about possible side-effects to children who have nothing to gain from such a move, said Professor Adam Finn of Bristol University.
“Children transmit Covid to some extent, although they rarely suffer badly from the disease themselves. If you offer them vaccines, then you put them at risk of possible side-effects – so there really needs to be some significant, tangible benefit to them, not just the indirect protection of adults from Covid-19.”
The preparation of plans to give Covid vaccines to UK children comes in the wake of the US decision to launch such a programme and at a time when Germany has indicated it is planning a similar move. Canada and Switzerland have also approved plans, while the European Medicines Agency (EMA) last week agreed to extend approval for the use of the Pfizer vaccine on 12- to 15-year-olds.
But the move to vaccinate children has been criticised by global health leaders, including the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who earlier this month said that although he understood why some countries wanted to vaccinate children and adolescents, he urged them to reconsider.
“In low and lower-middle income countries, Covid-19 vaccine supply has not been enough to even immunise healthcare workers, and hospitals are being inundated with people who need lifesaving care urgently,” he said.
This point was backed by Professor Peter Openshaw of Imperial College London. He said there was now “a very important argument to be had about the ethics of devoting all of these vaccines to our own population when we could be sharing them with the rest of the world”.
In the US – which has led the way in giving Covid vaccines to children – this action has been taken, in part, as a response to vaccine hesitancy there, added Finn. “In America they’ve got lots of vaccine but fewer people willing to be vaccinated, so immunising children may be seen as one way of increasing population immunity.
“However, it is probable they may still end up with higher proportions of unvaccinated people in certain communities and that could sustain outbreaks. By contrast, in the UK, the population – so far – has generally been very enthusiastic to be immunised, and that helps protect everyone enormously.”
This situation could change, however, especially with the arrival of new virus variants, added Openshaw. “The new variants are actually spreading down into younger generations. In other words, the virus is changing its behaviour as it evolves, and you could argue that as children are becoming much more important in driving transmission, there are reasons for widening vaccination and including children.”
This last point was backed by Finn, who said that if the spread of new variants caused major increases in cases across the country and triggered new lockdowns – including school closures – then it would be justifiable to begin vaccinating children. “You could justify the theoretical risk of rare severe side effects of vaccines by setting it against the important benefit of not disrupting children’s education any more.”
Professor Russell Viner, of University College London, agreed: “Once we have vaccinated as many adults as we can in the UK, we can look at where we are with the spread of cases, and if we find we still have significant disease transmission taking place, I believe there will be a case for vaccinating teenagers.
“By then, we will have accumulated much more knowledge of exactly how safe vaccines are, and we would be more confident about how teenagers will react to immunisation. Certainly, my feeling is that it is likely that it will eventually be safe to vaccinate teenagers, and that it is something we will do in future.”