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February 15, 2021

A COVID-19 vaccine for children inches closer as AstraZeneca launches trial

Pfizer and Moderna have begun testing their coronavirus shots on children 12 and older; AstraZeneca will test its shot on those as young as 6

As school districts across the country continue to face tough decisions about how to reopen safely, clinical trials to test COVID-19 vaccines on children are ramping up.

The University of Oxford and AstraZeneca are the latest vaccine developers to detail their plans to study the safety and effectiveness of their vaccine in children.

Pfizer and Moderna already have begun enrolling children 12 and older in clinical trials of their respective vaccines — the only ones currently authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

The University of Oxford trial will focus on children 6-17, the youngest group yet to be tested. The plan is to enroll 300 volunteers in the United Kingdom. Inoculations will start later this month.

"These new trials will extend our understanding of control of SARS-CoV-2 to younger age groups," said Andrew Pollard, professor of pediatric infection and immunity and chief investigator of the Oxford vaccine trial.

The European Union, United Kingdom and India have authorized the AstraZeneca vaccine. Clinical trials are still being conducted in the U.S., with results expected later this month. The U.S. has agreed to buy 300 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine if it is authorized by the FDA.

Pfizer and Moderna are expected to release the results of their clinical trials by the summer. Currently, Pfizer's vaccine is authorized for people ages 16 and up while the Moderna vaccine is authorized for people ages 18 and up.

"We're in the process of starting clinical trials in what we call age de-escalation, where you do a clinical trial with people 16 to 12, then 12 to 9, then 9 to 6," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told PROPUBLICA.

Fauci said COVID-19 vaccines could be authorized for children as young as first grade by September.  

In the United States, children ages 5-17 make up 9.4% of all COVID-19 cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children under age four constitute 1.9% of all U.S. cases. As of Monday, 294 children have died from the viral infection.

Though children don't appear to be as prone to severe COVID-19 as adults, infectious disease experts say some children are vulnerable to the virus and would benefit from being vaccinated. More than 2,000 children have developed multisystem inflammation syndrome, a serious COVID-related complication.

Children are also an important population to target to establish herd immunity and reduce the threat of new variants.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound negative impact on the education, social development and emotional well-being of children and adolescents, beyond illness and rare severe disease presentations," said Rinn Song, a pediatrician and clinician-scientist with the Oxford Vaccine Group. "It is therefore important to collect data on the safety and the immune response to our coronavirus vaccine in these age groups, so that they could potentially benefit from inclusion in vaccination programs in the near future." 

Johnson & Johnson and Novavax also plan to test their vaccines in children, but no further details have been released yet, according to The New York Times.

Late last week, the CDC released new guidance for reopening schools. COVID-19 vaccines were not considered an essential strategy, but viewed as an extra layer of protection.

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