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Here’s what to know about Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine and kids ages 5 to 11

Pending FDA approval, a vaccine for grade-school kids could be available by Halloween

By Alejandra Canales,
Tom Huang and Brayden Garcia

A vial containing five doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination
A vial containing five doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination during a media event at Parkland Hospital in Dallas on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. The first Parkland frontline staff and senior leaders received vaccinations at Parkland after receiving a shipment of Pfizer vaccines early Tuesday morning. The COVID-19 Tactical Care Unit has seen a rise in acuity of patients with COVID-19, and has a higher number of intubated patients in the COVID ICU since the summer, according to TCU medical leaders. Photo Credit: Lynda M. González/The Dallas Morning News, Lynda M. González / Staff Photographer

The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has been shown to work for children ages 5 to 11, the company announced Monday. The vaccine, made by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, is currently available for anyone 12 and older. Here’s what to know about this new development in fighting COVID.

What did Pfizer’s study show?

For children ages 5 to 11, Pfizer tested a lower dose — a third of the amount that’s in current shots. After a second dose, the young kids developed antibody levels as strong as those in teens and young adults, Dr. Bill Gruber, a Pfizer senior vice president and pediatrician, told the Associated Press.

Scientists say that, pending approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a vaccine for grade-school aged kids could be available by or around Halloween. If the dosing schedule is similar to that for adults and young adults, children who get vaccinated could achieve immunity in early December.

Erin Carlson, the director of graduate public health programs at the University of Texas at Arlington, said the findings are cause for cautious optimism, noting that Pfizer hasn’t shared its data yet. “The vaccine works to trigger the desired immune response,” she said. “That’s really the best outcome we can hope for in these trials of the children.”

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This new development “allows parents and grandparents and elementary school teachers to exhale,” she said. “Sooner than later, [they] will have the protection that they were seeking [for] their families and in their classrooms.”

Pfizer studied the lower dose in 2,268 children in kindergarten and elementary school. The Pfizer study, which came in a press release and not a peer-reviewed scientific publication, is ongoing. There haven’t been enough COVID cases to compare rates between the vaccinated and those given a placebo, the Associated Press reported.

The trial was not big enough to conclude whether the vaccine prevents COVID or hospitalization in the young age group, according to reporting by Apoorva Mandavilli of The New York Times. Rather, Pfizer studied the children’s immune response and found similar antibody levels as in older age groups.

What about safety?

Pfizer said the dosage for children proved safe, with similar side effects to those found in teens, including sore arms, fever or achiness, Gruber told the Associated Press.

The study isn’t large enough to detect any extremely rare side effects, such as the heart inflammation that sometimes occurs after the second dose, mostly in young men. Gruber said that once the vaccine is authorized, young children will be monitored for rare risks just like everyone else, according to reporting by Lauran Neergard of the Associated Press.

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Public health experts are eager to see the data associated with Pfizer’s press release so they can evaluate the vaccine’s safety in this younger age group. “No one’s going to say, ‘I think this is a done deal,’ until we see the actual data,” said Cecilia Tomori, the director of global public health and community health at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.

What are some local parents saying about this development?

Dr. Devin Trousdale of Richardson said his 9-year-old daughter is participating in the Pfizer vaccine trials. If she’s in the placebo group, she’ll get the vaccine as soon as it’s available, he said.

As a doctor and a parent, Trousdale, who is fully vaccinated, said he wouldn’t recommend anything for his patients or his children — he also has an 8-year-old daughter — if he didn’t try it himself. “We’re just mainly hoping it makes them safe at school,” he said. “We want to reduce the risk of transmitting the disease to other people, not just to our girls.”

The last 18 months have been hard on everyone, but especially children, said Candice Singleton of Richardson. Her 14-year-old daughter is already vaccinated, and her 11-year-old daughter will be vaccinated as soon as she can, she said. She already feels confident sending her children to school with masks, but said the vaccine will be another layer of protection.

Why does the vaccine make sense for her family? “Just getting back to normal and not having the fear of hospitalization and death,” Singleton said.

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What are Pfizer and BioNTech’s next steps, and how about Moderna?

Pfizer and BioNTech plan to apply to the FDA by the end of September for emergency use authorization for the younger age group. The FDA will analyze the companies’ data to confirm whether the vaccine is safe and effective, and that process could take up to a month, according to reporting by Carolyn Y. Johnson of The Washington Post. Moderna is still studying its shots in grade-school aged children.

Why are researchers focused on young children?

Children under 12 make up a large portion of our population, Carlson said, and getting kids vaccinated at similar rates as adults gets us closer to reaching herd immunity.

Children now make up more than one in five new cases, and the delta variant has sent more children into hospitals in the past few weeks than at any other time in the pandemic, according to Mandavilli of The New York Times.

Children are at lower risk of severe illness or death, but more than 5 million in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID and at least 460 have died, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

On Friday, the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council reported that 101 children with COVID were in pediatric ICUs in Trauma Service Area E, which covers the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

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Carlson hopes that more vaccinations in children will help alleviate the burden on pediatric hospital units in North Texas.

Tomori said that children under 12 have not been adequately protected during this phase of the pandemic. Many children have returned to in-person school settings that do not meet the basic safety standards laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said.

“We need to take seriously our obligation to protect people, including people [and children] who have underlying medical conditions,” she said.

Expanding younger children’s access to the vaccine will make a difference in communities that are disadvantaged or marginalized, she said. These children may not have access to the same kind of protection that children in wealthy school districts might have.

What about a vaccine for kids younger than 5?

Pfizer and Moderna are studying vaccines for children younger than 5, down to 6 months old, but results are not expected until later this year, according to the Associated Press.

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