Editor’s Note, May 13, 2o21: This story was updated with new information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Monday afternoon, the United States Food and Drug Administration expanded the emergency use authorization of Pfizer/BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine to include children between 12 and 15 years old. By Wednesday, an advisory panel of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unanimously approved vaccine distribution for this age group, opening up vaccine access to 17 million more Americans, CNN’s Maggie Fox reports.
The decision comes as a relief both for parents and adolescents, who have been attending school remotely, missing out on team sports, clubs and birthday parties. Now, about 87 percent of the U.S. population will be eligible for the vaccine, Pien Huang reports for NPR. CVS and other vaccine distributors announced they would begin administering the vaccine to this age group as early as Thursday, with consent from underaged individuals’ parents or guardians, CNN reports.
For many young teens, it is the social freedoms that come with vaccination—like attending school or summer camps in person, and not needing to quarantine after a Covid-19 exposure—that are most exciting.
“I got a notification on my phone after English and I told my mom, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to get an appointment really, really fast,'” says Nina Wallach, a 15-year-old Bellaire High School sophomore, to Shelley Childers at KTRK Houston. “I wasn’t able to travel or volunteer or go to band camp last summer, so I’m really excited to do them this summer.”
The FDA’s announcement follows a clinical trial of 2,260 young teens, which saw 18 cases of symptomatic Covid-19 in the group that did not receive the vaccine, and zero cases among kids who did get the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Side effects were comparable in adolescents and people between 16 and 25 years old, with about 20 percent getting fevers after the vaccination, reports the New York Times.
“These vaccines are eliciting an immune response that can cause some local reactions, [including] low-grade fevers and flu-like symptoms,” says Stanford University infectious disease expert Yvonne Maldonado, who is also the chair of the Committee on Infectious Diseases for the American Academy of Pediatrics, to NPR. “But those are short-lived, and in the end, they provide an immune response for protection against disease.”
The fact that side effects are slightly more common among adolescents tracks with observations made in earlier clinical trials, which showed that side effects were more common among people under 55 than older.
Pediatrician Bill Gruber, senior vice president at Pfizer, tells the New York Times that the new trial gave a “trifecta” of good results. “We have safety, we got the immune response we wanted — it was actually better than what we saw in the 16- to 25-year-old population — and we had outright demonstration of efficacy,” Gruber says.
Vaccinating children against Covid-19 will be key to protecting communities against outbreaks. UT Health and UT Physicians pediatric infectious disease specialist Michael Chang tells KTRK Houston that adolescents are as capable of transmitting the virus as older adults and they are more likely to participate in contact sports, choir and other activities where transmission is a major risk.
But because adolescents are less likely to have noticeable side effects, they could spread the disease without realizing it. So vaccinating kids “just makes it so much easier to assure that children are not being infected,” says Maldonado to NPR.
The next challenge will be getting the two-dose vaccine to adolescents before their summer activities or the next school year start. Public health departments have come up with plans like offering the shots with pop music and a selfie station, offering pop-up vaccination sites at amusement parks and camps, and driving a mobile vaccination truck around neighborhoods like an ice cream truck, Abby Goodnough and Jan Hoffman report for the New York Times.
The Biden administration also announced a plan to ship doses to 20,000 pharmacies and pediatricians directly. The administration also plans to include the Covid-19 vaccine with the normal course of summer vaccinations that children get before each school year, reports NPR. In some communities, it’s a race against the clock.
“We have a very finite amount of time,” says Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, to the New York Times. “In Alaska, kids go to the wind as soon as summer hits, so our opportunity to get them is now.”