Rising rates of COVID-19 among children are forcing many countries, including Australia, to expedite plans to vaccinate even younger members of the population.
In Victoria and New South Wales, children have been transmitting the Delta variant of the coronavirus at alarming rates.
More than 200 children under 10 were diagnosed with the virus in NSW over the weekend, while in Victoria more than one-fifth of the state’s active cases are currently in the same age group
The Doherty Institute’s modelling, which underpins the federal government’s vaccination targets, sets a goal of vaccinating 70 per cent of Australians aged 16 and over before moving to Phase B of the national cabinet’s four-phase plan for reopening Australia.
Phase B allows Australia to manage the virus with low-level restrictions and makes lockdowns ‘unlikely’.
But University of New South Wales epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws told The New Daily on Tuesday that opening up when 70 per cent of the population aged 16 and over is vaccinated will leave nine million Australians – including babies and young children – susceptible to catching and spreading COVID.
Children aged 12 to 15 are currently only eligible for a Pfizer vaccine if they are Indigenous or have underlying health conditions.
Decision on 12 to 15-year-olds pending
Australia’s expert advisory panel on immunisations, ATAGI, is set to make an announcement on Friday about whether the Pfizer vaccine should be made available for all children aged 12 to 15.
The national medical regulator, the TGA, has already approved Pfizer for all children aged 12 to 15, who makes up roughly two million of Australia’s population.
NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant this week said she wants the rollout expanded to children urgently.
“I firmly believe that we need to get in and vaccinate our 12- to 15-year-olds at the moment. We vaccinated the 16-year-olds [but] I’m keen to get into the 12- to 15-year-olds personally,” Dr Chant said.
“I believe in targeting school-aged children, in particular high school children, very quickly because we know they contribute to transmission.”
Do children need the COVID vaccine?
Australian Medical Association vice-president Chris Moy said the Delta strain had resulted in a concerning number of children becoming severely sick and suffering from long COVID afterwards.
“In the past, we didn’t think COVID caused severe disease in children very often and we didn’t think they were major wells of transmission,” Dr Moy told The New Daily.
“Delta has completely changed that.”
Many other countries have already started vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds.
Canada approved the vaccine for use in the age group in May, followed by Sweden in June, France, Singapore and Spain, which said it would have young teenagers vaccinated before their return to school.
Italy approved Moderna for teens in July.
In the United States, children aged 12 to 15 can only access the Pfizer vaccine through an emergency use authorisation.
The US has seen an alarming spike in cases among children, with some developing a rare complication called multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C), which causes the organs to become inflamed.
The World Health Organisation’s view is that we should not vaccinate children until the rest of the globe’s adult population has been innoculated first, Dr Moy said.
“But somewhere along the way the 12- to 15 year-olds will be approved by ATAGI and we’ve got to decide where they are in the queue,” he said.
“Adults between 20 and 40 are still more likely to get infected.”
What about pre-adolescents?
Currently, no COVID-19 vaccines have been authorised or approved for use in children under 12 in Australia.
Both Pfizer and Moderna are currently conducting vaccine trials in younger children to determine the proper dosage and whether it is safe and effective.
On Monday, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told NBC News he expects studies on children aged 5 to 11 will finish in September.
Without vaccinating kids, we’ll ‘have a problem’
Australia must make plans to vaccinate all kids eventually, because if we don’t “we’re going to have a problem”, Professor McLaws told The New Daily.
“If we open up at 70 or 80 per cent of adults vaccinated we will have a large proportion, millions of children, unvaccinated,” Professor McLaws said.
“And they become not just a case but a source. COVID has the ability to infect kids to kids and kids to adults.”
If Australia’s under-15s remain unprotected that’s roughly 4.8 million children.
Opening up with 70 per cent of fully vaccinated adults, leaves a total of 11 million Australians unvaccinated, Professor McLaws said.
If we open up at 80 per cent and the under-15s are not vaccinated, “we have nine million people at risk”, she said.
“Either way we still have an awful lot of Australians at risk of acquiring the virus and being a source.”
If children are not vaccinated and we let the virus run through the community, there will need to be a framework in place to protect them, Professor McLaws warned.
“The only way to protect them is to demand we use rapid antigen testing in primary schools, demand all teachers are fully vaccinated and not allow parents on campus.”