How COVID shots for children help prevent dangerous new variants
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Cadell Walker scrambled to vaccinate her 9-year-old daughter Solom against COVID-19 — not just to protect her but to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus and the breeding of more dangerous variants.
“Loving your neighbor is something we really believe in, and we want to be good members of society and we want to model that thinking for our daughter,” said the 40-year-old mom of Louisville, who recently transferred Solomy to a local prep school for her shot. “The only way to truly beat COVID is for us all to work together for the greater good.”
Scientists agree. Each infection — whether in an adult in Yemen or in a child in Kentucky — gives the virus another chance to mutate. Protecting a large new segment of the population anywhere in the world limits those opportunities.
That effort has gotten a boost with 28 million American children ages 5 to 11 now eligible for child-sized doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Moves elsewhere, such as Austria’s recent decision to require all adults to be vaccinated and even the US allowing booster doses for all adults on Friday, are helping by reducing the chances of new infections.
Vaccinating children also means reducing the silent spread, because most of them have no or mild symptoms when infected with the virus. Scientists say that when the virus spreads invisibly, it passes unabated. And the more people contract it, the higher the possibilities for new variants.
David O’Connor, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, likens infection to “the lottery tickets we give out to the virus.” Jackpot win? A more serious variant of the infectious delta currently circulating.
“The fewer people infected, the fewer lottery tickets, and the better we can all be in terms of generating variants,” he said, adding that variants are more likely to appear in immunocompromised people. Systems that harbor the virus for a long time.
Researchers disagree about the extent to which children will influence the course of the epidemic. Early research indicated that they did not contribute much to the spread of the virus. But some experts say children have played an important role this year in spreading infectious variants such as alpha and delta.
Vaccinating children could make a real difference in the future, estimates the Center for COVID-19 Scenario Models, a group of universities and medical research institutions that integrate models of how the pandemic will spread. The center’s latest estimates show that from November to March 12, 2022, vaccinating children ages 5 to 11 would avert about 430,000 COVID cases in the overall US population if no new variant emerged. If a variant that is 50% more transmissible than delta emerges in the late fall, 860,000 cases would be avoided, a “significant effect,” said project co-leader Catriona Shea, of Penn State University.
Delta is still dominant at the moment, accounting for more than 99% of the coronavirus samples analyzed in the United States. Scientists aren’t sure exactly why. It may in essence be more contagious, or at least partially evade the protection people get from vaccines or have been infected before, said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University.
“Maybe it’s a combination of these things,” he said. “But there is also very good and growing evidence that deltas are simply more favorable, which means that they are able to grow to higher levels faster than other variables that have been studied. So when people have delta, they become infectious sooner.”
Delta is a “large family” of viruses, Ray said, and the world is now swimming in a kind of “delta soup.”
“We have many delta strains that are spreading in many places without clear winners,” Ray said, adding that it’s hard to tell which genetic traits might have an advantage, or which non-delta variants might shed deltas.
“I often say it’s like seeing a car parked on the side of the road with racing spots, racing stripes, a rear wing and a big engine,” Ray said. But until you see it on the track with the other cars, you don’t know if it will win.”
Another big unknown: There may still be dangerous variants emerging in largely unvaccinated parts of the world and making their way to America even as US children join the ranks of vaccinators.
Walker, Louisville’s mother, said she and her husband can’t do anything about distant threats, but they can register their daughter for vaccinations at Jefferson County Public School sites this past weekend. Solome was adopted from Ethiopia and is prone to contracting pneumonia after respiratory illness after being exposed to tuberculosis as a child.
She said she wanted to keep the other children safe because “it’s not good to get sick.”
When a nurse bent over to give Solome her injection, Walker held her daughter’s hand, then praised her for picking out a fitting post-jab poster for a brave kid who did her part to help curb the epidemic.
“Wonderful woman,” Walker said. “excellent.”
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