TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) – If China is to meet its interim goal of vaccinating 80% of its population against the coronavirus by the end of the year, tens of millions of children may have to start rolling up their sleeves.
Regulators took the first step last week by approving the use of the country’s Sinovac vaccine for children aged 3 to 17, although no announcement has been made on when the injections will start.
Children have been largely spared the worst of the pandemic, becoming infected less easily than adults and generally showing less severe symptoms when they catch the virus. But experts say children can still pass the virus to others, and some note that if countries are to achieve herd immunity through their vaccination campaigns, vaccinating children should be part of the plan.
“Vaccinating children is an important step forward,” said Jin Dong-yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong School of Medicine.
However, this may be easier said than done for reasons ranging from vaccine hesitancy to vaccine availability.
Even in countries with enough vaccines for everyone, some governments struggle to convince adults that injections are safe and necessary despite studies showing it. These concerns can be magnified when it comes to the youngest in society.
There is also the issue of approval. Few regulators around the world have assessed the safety of COVID-19 injections in children, with the majority of injections approved only for adults at present. But the approvals are starting. The United States, Canada, Singapore and Hong Kong all allow the use of the Pfizer vaccine in children as young as 12 years old.
Sinovac’s announcement could pave the way for administering the vaccine, already in use in dozens of countries, from Brazil to Indonesia, to children around the world.
In Thailand, where Sinovac makes up the bulk of the country’s vaccine supply, Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul hailed the news that China had approved emergency use for children.
“Once approved, we are ready to provide the vaccine for all ages,” Anutin said Monday.
Other vaccine manufacturers are also working to expand access to younger people. Moderna is asking permission to use her shot on children as young as 12, like Pfizer. Both companies have studies underway in even younger children, up to the age of 6 months.
Another barrier to immunizing children is that many countries still struggle to obtain enough doses to immunize their high-risk adult populations. Thailand, for example, has only vaccinated 4% of its population so far, and the demand for vaccines among adults far exceeds supply.
“Right now, given the shortage of vaccines, any vaccine available should be prioritized based on age and risk,” Jerome Kim, director of the International Vaccine Institute, said at Seoul. “It’s really important to get this vaccine to where it’s needed now. “
In many places, the public is also concerned about the effectiveness of the Sinovac vaccine compared to its Western rivals. Although efficacy rates cannot be compared directly, due to trials conducted under different conditions, western vaccines have been shown to be very effective in preventing infection in real world testing. Sinovac injection has been shown to be effective in preventing serious illness and hospitalization.
The World Health Organization last week approved the Sinovac vaccine for emergency use in adults aged 18 and older, paving the way for its use in global programs to distribute vaccines to income countries low and intermediate. The WHO has given no indication of when it might approve it for the younger ones.
Vaccines are often approved separately for adults and children because young immune systems may respond to doses differently. Experts say inactivated vaccines are generally considered safe for children because the technology has been used for a long time, such as in mandatory childhood immunization programs, and has shown low risk.
Nikolai Petrovsky, a vaccine expert at Flinders University in Australia, said that while it is reasonable to assume that the vaccines would be safe for children, he questioned the need to vaccinate them against a virus they are against. are relatively protected using a vaccine that has not yet been demonstrated. it is blocking transmission.
“As far as I know, there is no data to suggest that the Sinovac vaccine will block transmission in children,” he wrote in an email. “Without such evidence, we must ask ourselves why we are immunizing children.”
China has a population of 1.4 billion people, which means it needs to immunize 560 million people to reach its goal of 40% immunization by June and 1.12 billion people to reach the 80% target. It will be difficult to do the latter without immunizing many of its 254 million children under the age of 14.
When China begins immunizing children will be determined by the government’s National Health Commission depending on the epidemic situation, Sinovac CEO Yin Weidong told state broadcaster CCTV last week.
A spokesperson for Sinovac did not respond to a call seeking comment. China’s National Health Commission directed the AP to a report summarizing Yin’s comments.
Chinese state-owned Sinopharm, which has two inactivated vaccines widely used for adults, said it had also submitted data to regulators on clinical trials for children aged 3 to 17.
Associated Press editors Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul and Fu Ting in Bangkok contributed to this report.