On an unusually warm spring morning, a class of seventh and eighth graders exits the doors of Charles Gordon Senior Public School in Scarborough, Ont. They walk single file through the yard, masked and distanced from each other by a strict two metres — a sign of the times in Toronto, where kids only recently returned to in-person schooling after another lockdown.
The day’s lesson is about COVID-19 vaccines, and appropriately, it was being held at an outdoor classroom. Students had been asked to read up on the vaccines and present questions they would like to ask Canadian officials about the inoculations and their distribution.
As vaccines roll out among older adults, many of the questions from this group of students focused on the fact that children aren’t on the current inoculation schedule. Of the vaccines approved in Canada so far, only the Pfizer vaccine has been cleared for people as young as 16 years old, and the other three are currently meant for ages 18 and up.
Their teacher, Tracey Toyama, said the lesson was a natural extension of current events. “They see it every day on social media; they come in, they ask questions,” she said.
“Why are children not more prioritized in terms of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine?” asked one girl.
“Why wouldn’t we vaccinate children so that they don’t put those who are vulnerable at risk?” asked another.
Indeed, since most children tend to experience milder cases of COVID-19, they weren’t prioritized in international vaccine trials. Still, kids do get sick and they can pass on the virus.
In fact, more than 157,000 Canadians aged 19 or younger have caught COVID-19. So until both adults and children are inoculated against the virus, it’s unlikely society will be able to go back to normal.
In recognition of this, a number of vaccines are now being tested on younger people.
Drug maker Sinovac submitted data to the Chinese government this week saying its vaccine is safe for children between the ages of three and 17.
Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson are now testing their COVID-19 vaccines on younger kids, too. Moderna’s trial includes children as young as six months old. Early data from Pfizer on its trials for children aged 12 years and older is expected soon.
Quebec-based Medicago, which is working through Phase 3 adult trials for its plant-based COVID-19 vaccine, says it has plans to move on to younger age groups as data emerges.
According to Nathalie Charland, a senior director with Medicago, the trials will be similar to those they’ve conducted with people aged 18 and up, though children will likely receive half the vaccine dosage.
Along with monitoring each of the test cases to make sure they’re safe, she said, “We will be looking at the immunogenicity of the vaccine candidate to see if what we saw in adults is the same that we see in children.”
Dr. Noni MacDonald with Dalhousie University in Halifax said vaccinating children is “incredibly important.”
She said adults were “rightly” prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines because, “children have not been shown to be the big vector of transmitting this virus from one person to another; it’s mostly adults and young people.”
However, MacDonald added, “The problem we have is we know that we need to have the community immunity happen. So, if we have big pockets of children that are not immunized, that community is not immune.”
With variants circulating, she said, the impetus to vaccinate children as soon as possible is strong.
“This is not the end,” she said. “This is a wicked virus and we need to control it in all the ways we can.”
That urgency is especially acute in households where a family member is immunocompromised.
Torontonian Amerie Alvis, 15, has been worried about bringing the virus home to her mom this past year. Her mother, Jaeda Larkin, is a single parent with rheumatoid arthritis.
“What if she does get sick, and I’m all alone?” Alvis said.
At nearly 16 years old, Alvis should be eligible for the Pfizer vaccine in a few months and said she is “all for it.”
In the meantime, she has chosen to do online schooling rather than go back to class, in order to minimize the risk to herself and her mom. Alvis said she won’t go back until she gets a shot, but she’s hopeful life could look different next fall.
Having lost some relatives in the U.S. to COVID-19, Larkin is similarly keen to see the two of them vaccinated against the virus.
“The thought of risking my daughter or, you know, potentially having her get sick is terrifying to me,” Larkin said.
Without available vaccine data for kids under 16, some parents of younger children are hesitant to commit just yet.
Torontonians Barry Ayow and Gina Athanasiou aren’t sure whether they’ll want to vaccinate their two youngest kids, who are 12 and 14 years old, against COVID-19 right away.
“I’m willing to experiment on myself. I’m willing to be a guinea pig. But to volunteer my children to be guinea pigs, that’s a different thing, right?” said Ayow.
At the same time, a sense of duty to their older family members and neighbours is weighing on the couple.
“Will duty outweigh our obligation to our kids to make sure that they’re safe? I don’t know,” said Athanasiou, who has concerns about possible side effects of the vaccines on her kids.
She added, “Maybe we’ll feel more comfortable when we have the studies.”
Dr. MacDonald said parents can be reassured that a push to vaccinate children won’t be coming “out of nowhere.”
“This is going to be based on evidence,” she said.
In fact, according to MacDonald, information about the COVID-19 vaccines will be more robust than what was initially available for previous vaccines, such as polio.
When the time comes for children to get vaccinated, she said, “literally tens of millions of doses of these vaccines will have been used in the population. We’ve never had that kind of volume whenever we’ve used vaccines in children before when we were starting.”
In a show of hands, about half the students in the Grade 7 and 8 class at Charles Gordon Senior Public School said they themselves would take the vaccine based on what they currently know, with others mostly citing the need for more information on their own age group.
What’s clear from nearly all of them during their classroom discussion, though, is that the stress of the pandemic isn’t just affecting adults.
For seventh grader Isaiah Velez, keeping his family and friends safe is a personal priority, he said, as is putting an end to the pandemic. “I miss going out in public and meeting my friends — a lot,” he said.
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