Boston Children’s Hospital will lead two studies investigating why most children and young adults infected with the novel coronavirus don’t become seriously ill, while some others do, the hospital said Tuesday.
The $2.1 million nationwide Overcoming COVID-19 study, funded and overseen by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will collect data from 800 patients hospitalized at more than 35 children’s hospitals across the country, the hospital said.
That data will be provided to the CDC in almost real time, and up to 400 of the patients will be closely monitored, including the routine collection of blood and respiratory samples, the hospital said.
Dr. Adrienne Randolph, a senior critical care physician at Children’s Hospital and the principal investigator for the nationwide study, said it’s “very perplexing” that this virus has largely spared children and young adults from serious illness.
“If this was an influenza pandemic, we would be inundated — inundated with patients” at Boston Children’s Hospital, she said in a phone interview Tuesday evening. “Children and young people are hit very hard in influenza pandemics. And otherwise healthy young people . . . there still will be mortality and severe, critical illness with an influenza pandemic. In this pandemic, we aren’t seeing that.”
Instead, she said, COVID-19 hits older people hardest and generally becomes less serious for each decade subtracted from a patient’s age. Even infants, though their immune systems are still developing and they are extremely vulnerable to many viruses, are little affected by the coronavirus.
“It’s very surprising that they aren’t getting super-sick with this,” Randolph said.
Children’s Hospital has 13 patients with the virus, four of whom are in intensive care, according to data released by the state Tuesday.
Many theories have been put forward to explain why children are so little touched by the virus, but so far there haven’t been enough data to prove or disprove the notions, she said.
“There’s a lot of different ideas, and it’s all speculation,” Randolph said, adding later, “What we need at this point in this pandemic is some data. We need to do a really meticulously designed, very robust . . . epidemiological study.”
The Overcoming COVID-19 study will involve patients in ICUs, intermediate care units, and general wards, Children’s said. Some participating facilities will include patients who are infected but have no symptoms and patients with the flu, for comparison, the hospital said.
A separate initiative at the hospital, called Taking on COVID-19 Together, will examine the DNA of coronavirus patients, looking for variations that make people more or less susceptible to becoming ill, Children’s said. That initiative will also create a bank of tissue samples for researchers, minimizing the need for repeated gathering of samples and thus saving personal protective gear, the hospital said.
Because it’s uncommon for children to become seriously ill with the coronavirus, those who do may have “an underlying issue with their immune system,” Randolph said. “We want to figure out if they do.”
Researchers from Children’s will also study people treated as outpatients at the hospital, who had only mild symptoms, to determine their level of antibodies for the virus, Randolph said. That could help them figure out whether milder cases of the virus leave the body with fewer antibodies to fight off a later exposure.
Researchers at Children’s are also conducting other studies related to COVID-19, including an effort to develop a vaccine, the hospital said.