Every public utterance of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases and MSNBC’s favorite physician, qualifies as headline news. That’s especially true when it comes to kids and when they will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. With adult vaccination underway (if not exactly running smoothly) all over the country, Fauci recently commented on the next frontier: a COVID-19 vaccine for kids.
“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,” Fauci told ProPublica. He went on to say that he thought from first grade through high school will be vaccinated by the beginning of the next school year, in September of 2021.
If getting the vast majority of the 56 million-plus schoolchildren in the United States inoculated with a vaccine that hasn’t been approved yet in just seven months sounds like a bit of wishful thinking, some very qualified medical experts agree with you.
“To me, it’s possible, but there are a lot of hurdles that have to be overcome in order for that to happen,” said Dr. Walter Orenstein, a professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine and a former director of the immunization program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Education Week. “Everything [in the trials] would have to go well.”
That’s a distinct possibility, as those trials are still in their infancy. Pfizer, whose adult vaccine is approved for those as young as 16, has a trial for 12 to 15 year-olds fully enrolled and expects to have results in “the early part of 2021.” Assuming those are promising, it then will run another trial for 5-11-year-old children.
Moderna, whose adult vaccine is approved for those 18 and older, is still recruiting for its 12-15-year-old trial and is “on track to provide updated data around mid-year.” Its next age de-escalation study for six-month to 11-year-olds isn’t scheduled to yield clinical data until next year.
Fellow vaccine manufacturers Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, and AstraZeneca have also yet to begin testing a children’s version of the vaccine.
“We’ve not been seeing the manufacturers approach the pediatric trials with quite the same urgency as with the adult trials,” Dr. Lee Savio Beers, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the medical director for community health and advocacy at Children’s National Hospital, said of the current status of the children’s trials. “We’ve been seeing the foot come off the gas a little.”
Further complicating matters is the principal difference between the children and adult vaccines. For adults, the main measure of effectiveness is how many vaccinated people developed COVID-19 symptoms and how severe those symptoms were compared to the placebo group. But because children are so much less likely to display any COVID-19 symptoms, much less severe symptoms, scientists have to develop a new metric for success based on the level of antibodies in the blood of vaccinated children.
Of course, Fauci could be right. He’s not being totally anti-factual, he’s just optimistic, maybe more than others. And he probably knows as much as anyone about the specifics of COVID-19 vaccine development and what’s happening in the labs of these various companies. All these other experts are saying is that as things stand his opinion is on the optimistic side of things, and a greater sense of urgency will be needed for him to be proved right.