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Studies Are Looking Into The Benefits Of The Vaccine In Children As Young As 6 Months

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Right now, only children 12 and older can get a COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. Studies underway at multiple sites are gathering data to see if the vaccine can be given to children as young as 6 months. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has more.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: There's been a lot of discussion about whether children younger than 12 should get vaccinated. Some worry that even if the risks from getting the vaccine are small, the benefits to children are unclear.

FLOR MUNOZ: They do have - yes, indeed - a milder illness and lower likelihood of becoming infected. But they can be infected, they can get severe illness and they can transmit the virus.

PALCA: Flor Munoz is a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine. Munoz is running the study testing the Pfizer vaccine in young children. The first thing she and her colleagues had to find was the optimal dose of the vaccine.

MUNOZ: Optimal meaning the dose that will give you a similar immune response that will be protective, as we have seen with adolescents, with the minimum amount of side effects that the vaccine could cause.

PALCA: The data showed that one-third of the adult dose works well in children older than 5. Children in the next phase of the study are getting either a vaccine or a placebo so that researchers can be certain any benefit or risk they see is really related to the vaccine. The study won't actually test to see if the vaccine prevents children from getting sick. Instead, it will look at their blood to see if they are making the kinds of antibodies that have been shown to prevent disease. Baylor College of Medicine's Erin Nicholson is running a study of the Moderna vaccine in children 6 months to 12 years.

ERIN NICHOLSON: We are about to start a randomized portion of the study. So we have finished the dose-finding portion.

PALCA: Both Munoz and Nicholson say it's been easy to find parents eager to enroll their children in the vaccine studies.

NICHOLSON: I get multiple emails a day asking. And unfortunately, we just have limited spots.

PALCA: But both researchers say that interest is probably a reflection of the fact that the nature of the COVID pandemic has changed, and children now are at greater risk. Paul Offit is a pediatric vaccine specialist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He didn't hesitate when I asked him if he thought there needed to be a COVID vaccine for children.

PAUL OFFIT: Yes (laughter). I mean, look what's happening now. I think we have, like, 70,000, you know, cases or something in children over the last week.

PALCA: Neither the Moderna nor the Pfizer studies is finished, but Phil Dormitzer says results for children older than 5 should be available soon. Dormitzer is chief scientific officer for viral vaccines at Pfizer.

PHILIP DORMITZER: It doesn't look like we'll have it before the school year starts, but we're hoping to have authorization - depending on both results and, of course, you know, FDA decisions - not too long after the school year starts; you know, perhaps in October or so.

PALCA: Even if the Food and Drug Administration grants authorization for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for young children, there are those who suggest perhaps wealthy countries should be thinking more about those with a desperate need of vaccination against COVID-19 as opposed to children who are at relatively low risk. Kate O'Brien, director of immunization, vaccines and biologicals at the World Health Organization, emphasized that point at a news conference yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATE O'BRIEN: We're in a state still where we have to focus on what the highest priorities are before moving our way down to other groups who would have benefit but are not the highest priority groups.

PALCA: It's a global equity issue that still needs to be resolved.

Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.