Vaccinating children emerged as a promising new frontier in the war against COVID-19 on Wednesday as Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech reported their vaccine fully protected teenagers in a closely watched US clinical trial.
The findings could pave the way for regulators to clear the vaccine for adolescent use in the coming months, allowing many high school and middle school students to be inoculated before they head back to school this fall. Vaccine makers have also begun testing their shots in children 11 and younger.
But even if vaccines are authorized for children, a lot of skeptical parents will have to be convinced they’re safe.
In a new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll being published Thursday, more than a third of the Massachusetts residents who responded said they don’t plan to give children in their households shots. More than 53 percent told pollsters they would vaccinate children, while just over 35 percent said they would not and nearly 11 percent were undecided.
“We should see how kids who are a little older do with the vaccine before we give it to younger children,” said Giselle Cabrera, the owner of a Chicopee hair salon who has a 10-year-old son studying remotely and a 3-year-old daughter.
Pfizer and BioNTech said their vaccine was 100 percent effective, triggering strong antibody responses and showing no serious side effects, in a clinical study of 2,260 volunteers age 12 to 15. Half were given the two-shot vaccine, the others placebos. Preliminary data showed no symptomatic cases of COVID-19 among those fully vaccinated, while there were 18 infections in the placebo group, the companies said.
The companies said they plan to seek emergency use authorization from federal regulators for the vaccine, which is currently cleared for Americans who are 16 and over.
Regulators have already given Pfizer-BioNTech and Cambridge-based Moderna a green light to conduct other clinical studies in children, eventually in those as young as six months old. Other vaccine makers, including Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, are also doing pediatric studies.
Epidemiologists see vaccinating kids as key to subduing COVID-19 through herd immunity, where so many people are protected against a virus that it’s unable to spread widely. With vaccine hesitancy remaining a stubborn factor among pockets of the adult population, some pediatricians say it’s even more critical to consider immunizing the 1.3 million Massachusetts residents under the age of 18.
Children are generally at low risk for contracting severe illness from COVID-19. But if they get infected, even if they don’t show symptoms, they can transmit the virus to more vulnerable populations, especially older adults.
“Our goal is to suppress, eliminate, and ultimately to eradicate the virus,” said Dr. Richard Malley, senior physician in pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Given that we won’t be able to get all the high-risk people we want vaccinated, immunizing people at lower risk becomes more important.”
As data from the Pfizer-BioNTech study is evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, some health officials now see the possibility of shots for the tens of millions Americans under age 16 starting by late summer and extending, for those in elementary school, through the end of next year.
That will present an opportunity, and a dilemma, for parents. Many view widespread vaccination as the surest way to guarantee a safe return to classrooms. But others have questions about the vaccine’s safety for younger people.
“I have no hesitation to vaccinate my kids after it becomes available for them,” said Jenny Tam, a scientist whose two sons, age 8 and 11, recently returned to school five days a week in Brookline. “Quite honestly, my kids would want to participate. I think vaccines are an extra level of safety.”
Sasha Jimenez, a health care manager working remotely from her Holyoke home as her 10-year-old daughter attends classes remotely, said she’s more likely to hold back.
“There’s a lot of things I still have questions about,” said Jimenez, who has been vaccinated herself but notes the research on children so far is preliminary. “Streamlined research is one thing for adults, but another for children. I’d like to see a little more on the longer-term effects.”
Boston School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius weighed in strongly in favor of vaccinating teenagers while touring a South Boston elementary school Tuesday with visiting US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. Cassellius said vaccination “would bring some normalcy” to the lives of students who’ve struggled through a year of the pandemic.
Pediatricians cite two advantages of extending the vaccine to people under 18: It protects them, their families, and those they come into contact with. And it makes it harder for the virus to spread more widely across the population.
“Our strategy from the beginning has been to focus vaccination campaigns on those at highest risk,” said Malley at Boston Children’s. “At the same time, we have a pretty good inkling that the vaccines are interrupting asymptomatic infection. So giving children the vaccine, if it’s safe and effective, becomes a very important goal.”
But doctors say it’s too soon to conclude how safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines are for children. Pfizer and BioNTech reported results Wednesday, but didn’t publish complete data from their studies, saying the data would be shared with regulators. It will have to be evaluated by the FDA’s staff and an outside panel of medical experts before the agency decides whether to authorize it for emergency use.
Regulators seek to determine that the benefit of any medicine outweighs the risks before they approve its use. But they typically study data from clinical trials over longer periods.
Because the three COVID-19 vaccines now being given in the United States were developed and tested in less than a year, they were given emergency authorization for use in adults rather than full approval. Vaccine clearance for children would also likely be on an emergency basis, at least initially.
Dr. Cody Meissner, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Tufts Children’s Hospital in Boston, said physicians are willing to accept more uncertainty to protect adults from the virus. Out of more than 550,000 deaths from COVID-19 nationally, only about 200 have been children under 18, he said.
“We’re suffering a devastating pandemic, there’s no question about it,” Meissner said. “But if you look at where the burden of disease is, it’s in the elderly. This is a disease that primarily transmits from adult to adult. It’s less likely to spread from children to adults. So that’s a reason to establish a vaccine’s safety before it’s administered to millions of children.”