After more than a year, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic may finally be in sight. Three COVID-19 vaccines are currently authorized for emergency use in the U.S., and millions of American adults are rolling up their sleeves every day to get their shots.
In March, President Joe Biden directed states to make all U.S. adults eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine by May 1. But since the vaccines have yet to be authorized for use in children under 16, a big question remains: When kids will be able to get their shots?
While it’s true that most children rarely get very sick from COVID-19 — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that COVID-19 hospitalization rates are 80 times higher among adults older than 85 than they are among children between the ages of 5 to 17 — many parents won’t (and shouldn’t) feel comfortable returning to life as normal until their children are fully vaccinated, too, says Sean O’Leary, M.D., M.P.H., vice chair of the Committee for Infectious Diseases at the American Academy of Pediatrics and professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus/Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Here’s when vaccines may become available for your little one, and how to keep kids safe in the interim.
When will kids be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine?
Although there are still a lot of unknowns, experts are hopeful that children will begin to receive the COVID-19 vaccine within the next six to nine months.
There are three COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized for emergency use in the U.S. Two, the Moderna and Johnson & Johnon/Janssen Pharmaceuticals vaccines, are approved for adults 18 and older, while the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for anyone 16 and up.
Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines work by injecting a genetic material called mRNA, which tells your body how to make a viral protein that triggers a protective immune response against 2019-nCoV, the form of coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine also triggers a protective immune response, but it does so by injecting a disabled cold virus, known as an adenovirus, to deliver the instructions.
There’s no live COVID-19 virus involved in any of the these vaccines. Your body breaks down the mRNA or adenovirus molecules, which then disappear, explains Rajeev Fernando, M.D., an infectious disease expert in Southampton, New York and member of the What to Expect Medical Review Board.
As for when children will be able to get their shots, experts estimate the following:
- Kids ages 12 to 15 will hopefully be able to get vaccinated by this fall, according to recent statements made by Anthony Fauci, M.D., chief medical adviser to President Biden. Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are currently testing their COVID-19 vaccines in teens.
- Children younger than age 12 will probably have to wait a bit longer. Younger children will most likely be able to get a COVID-19 vaccine by the first quarter of 2022, according to statements by Dr. Fauci.
Moderna announced earlier this month that it has begun studying its vaccine in younger children. The company plans to enroll over 6,700 participants aged 6 months to 12 years, and will monitor them for a year after the second shot. Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson have also indicated that they soon plan to begin clinical trials in children.
Why weren’t children included in the first COVID-19 clinical trials?
Children’s immune systems are very different from those of adults, and their immune responses can vary according to their age, explains Dr. O’Leary.
While a teenager may respond to a vaccine similarly as an adult, an elementary school-age child, a toddler or an infant could have a very different reaction. That’s why it’s so important to always hold clinical trials in kids separately.
The upcoming trials in children will go through two stages. The first stage will look at different dose levels — specifically doses that are one-quarter, one-half or equal to the doses given to adults, explains Dr. Fernando. As a next step, those doses will then be tested against placebo injections.
About 24 percent of the U.S. population — around 74 million people — is under 18, and experts say getting kids vaccinated is key to ending the pandemic.
“It’s crucial to get these vaccine studies done in children,” explains Dr. Fernando. “In order to reach herd immunity — the point where enough people have achieved immunity to the COVID-19 vaccine to stop its spread — at least 70 to 80 percent of the entire population needs to be vaccinated. That means we absolutely have to include children.”
Will the COVID-19 vaccines be safe for children?
Yes. As with all vaccines, the COVID-19 vaccines will undergo a rigorous approval process before they’re available to children.
Since the initial clinical trials to evaluate the safety and efficacy of the three COVID-19 vaccines involved tens of thousands of people, the age-related testing on teens and children can be done using much smaller groups, says Dr. O’Leary. Once the trials are complete, they still need to be reviewed and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which adds another layer of safety to the process.
You also don’t need to be worried that the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines will alter your child’s DNA. Dr. Fauci has stressed that the mRNA has no way of entering human cells, so it can’t change their genetic profile at all.
How can parents keep children safe before they get the COVID-19 vaccine?
Since it may be some time before your little ones can get vaccinated, it’s important to continue following the same safety measures you’ve used throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, says Kyle Monk, M.D., a pediatrician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California and member of the What to Expect Medical Review Board.
This includes wearing masks, practicing social distancing and frequent handwashing. “The good news is research does show low rates of transmission in schools, so you can comfortably send your children to school or summer camp,” she says. The CDC also recently revised its K-12 school guidelines to say that spacing kids three feet apart is just as safe as six feet, as long as there’s universal mask wearing.
However, life won’t necessarily return to normal just because schools and camps are open, adds Dr. Monk. “You still need to hold off on unmasked playdates or sleepovers until children are vaccinated,” she explains. If your kids interact with anyone outside of their immediate household, it should be masked (unless it’s someone fully vaccinated and close to them).
Finally, parents and caregivers should get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible. “There’s research to suggest vaccination can help reduce transmission rates, so if you do contract COVID-19, you’re less likely to pass it to your children,” says Dr. Monk.