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Researchers Study Whether COVID-19 Vaccines Are Safe For Children

NOEL KING, HOST:

Is it safe for children to take COVID-19 vaccines? We still don't actually know, but researchers are trying to figure it out. Dr. Roberta DeBiasi is the head of pediatric infectious diseases at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C., and she told me there's a reason that we still don't know how these vaccines affect kids.

ROBERTA DEBIASI: It stems from the fact that we always focus on adults first, both for the disease itself - and that's appropriate in the case of COVID because of the severity of the disease in adults. But it does affect children, both the disease, and therefore, we do need to think about vaccine in children as well. But in all vaccines, we always want to do our initial efficacy and safety studies in the adult population, in particular for this disease where that group of people are the most heavily affected with hospitalizations, severe infection and death.

KING: So children just aren't part of the trials in the beginning. Is that generally what happens?

DEBIASI: That's generally the case, that we start with adults and then as we get the safety and efficacy data, we incrementally will move it down into the younger age groups. So for the Pfizer product, they did include down to 16 years of age in that initial set of data that we saw. And in fact, they had been enrolling children down to 12 years of age since October. And there were even, you know, a couple hundred children for which we had a little bit of preliminary data to look at for that product. For the Moderna product, they are now just launching a 12 to 17-year-old group of individuals to be studied, and they'll have over 3,000 children in that study as well.

KING: And so how long would you say it will be before we know whether these two vaccines are safe for children?

DEBIASI: I would hope that maybe by January or February we should start to see some of the data coming out.

KING: Normally with new vaccines, we do have longer to study the side effects and how they could differ in children compared to adults. Are you comfortable and confident that this is being handled well, that enough time is being given to determine whether or not this might affect children differently than adults, this vaccine?

DEBIASI: Yes, I'm very confident. I think, you know, one of the things that the public really should understand is that the ability to speed up, quote, "speed up the process" here has nothing to do with shortening or changing or taking shortcuts with the very careful safety and efficacy evaluations. The part that was able to be speeded up was because of the technology of these two vaccines and the ability to develop the vaccine with a piece of message RNA rather than some of the other methods that we've used for over 50 years that are very, very time-consuming to actually get to the point where you can put it into a human trial. But what I think is super important for the public to know is that once the product was available and went into the usual clinical trials, there have been no shortcuts.

KING: NPR's Science Desk is aware of some reporting suggesting that the dose of the vaccine could be reduced for children. What do you know about that? Is that standard? Do kids normally get, for example, less flu vaccine than adults do?

DEBIASI: For this particular vaccines - these two that have been released so far - they have performed very similarly in the 16 to 18-year-olds as to the older individuals. But if we look at the actual numbers of the side effects, they are slightly higher in kids, meaning they have a more robust immune response to the vaccine. So it's certainly possible that they might actually need a lower dose, so that all is being evaluated.

KING: What do you want parents listening to know right now?

DEBIASI: I think what parents should know is that the vast majority of children are going to do fine even if they get infected with COVID. Only 3% of all the hospitalizations in the U.S. are in children. So, you know, if we take any one child, the odds are very good for them that they're going to have a mild illness, and if they're hospitalized, they're going to survive. And the vaccine is really important for us now to first protect our most vulnerable population, which are the health care workers, the front-line essential workers, our elderly and our teachers and those that are interacting with children. And eventually with the appropriate safety studies that are being done and efficacy studies in kids, we'll also have a safe and efficacious vaccine for our kids as well.

KING: Dr. Roberta DeBiasi, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C., thank you so much for taking the time. We appreciate it.

DEBIASI: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 22, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of the introduction misspelled Dr. Roberta DeBiasi's last name as DiBiasi.