The past couple of weeks have brought a light at the end of the tunnel: COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed in the first wave to essential workers. Since the emergency authorization approvals of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, several parents have asked me about them.
Everyone wants to know if the vaccines are safe, when they will be widely distributed, if and when children will be able to get them, and so on. While there are still many unanswered questions, I thought this would be a good time to provide the answers we have so far.
First, this seems like a good time to recap where we are in the process. Two vaccines have been approved to help prevent COVID-19, one from Pfizer and one from Moderna. Both companies are using a new type of technology, called messenger RNA, or mRNA. Think of it as an instruction manual: When mRNA enters the body, it provides instructions that allow your body to produce a part of the virus called a spike protein. This spike protein triggers an immune response in your body that protects you from illness if you come in contact with the coronavirus.
After delivering those initial instructions, the mRNA quickly breaks down in the body. Therefore it has no effect on our genes. The vaccine from Pfizer is approved for people 16 years of age and older, while the Moderna vaccine is approved for those 18 or older. Both vaccines have reported near 95% protection from COVID-19 in their clinical trials. They become most efficient starting seven to 14 days after the second dose. At the moment, we don’t know how long this immunity lasts, since the phase three trials were started only two to three months ago.
We also lack data regarding the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines in children, since kids were not part of the initial clinical trials. However, Pfizer has started to enroll children 12 to 16 years old in its clinical trials and Moderna is about to start a similar study. The current thought process is younger children will also be enrolled in studies once the vaccines are shown to be successful and safe for adolescents. The American Academy of Pediatrics has been pushing for such trials, since we know how important it is to protect children from the virus to help control its spread. However, until such trials have been completed, we don’t know any specifics on when the vaccines will be offered to children.
At this time, the COVID-19 vaccine is recommended but not required for those who are eligible. Once it becomes more widely available, it is possible that some jobs may require vaccination for employees. Similarly, when the vaccine is shown to be safe and effective for children, some schools might require vaccination prior to school entry. This may be determined on a state-by-state basis. However, it’s still too early to make any predictions about this. The hope is that the vaccines continue to prove to be safe and effective for people of all ages, and that kids can start getting vaccinated even before the start of the 2021-22 school year.
Until we know more and until the vaccine becomes more available, the best things to do are the things you and your family are already doing: social distancing, wearing masks in public and washing your hands frequently.
Dr. Laura Shefner writes about pediatric care for the Cleveland and Columbus Jewish News. She is a pediatrician at The MetroHealth System and practices in Beachwood and Parma.