In the fight against COVID-19, our line of defence must be to vaccinate the kids
As educational institutions re-open tentatively in India, parents are worried that unlike most of them, their children are not yet vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus and they may be vulnerable to infection at school. The concern is natural and understandable but clear-cut answers to their queries are not forthcoming. The States, the Centre, the state task forces, the national task force, and the host of experts need to be on the same page and clarify by when can children be expected to get the jabs, if they would be divided into age groups for the purpose, and whether the healthy among them need immediate vaccination at all. Paediatricians say healthy children are at low risk from the virus but there is no unanimity on whether it is safe for them to attend school unvaccinated. The United Kingdom is still disinclined to vaccinate healthy children in the 12-15 years age group. The doses will only offer a marginal benefit and the jabs can instead be diverted to vulnerable adults and children with co-morbidities, like chronic heart, lung and liver conditions, it argues. The British committee’s hesitation arises from the concern over a rare side effect of heart inflammation from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. In India, out of 44 crore children, around 12 crore are in the 12-17 age group. The national COVID-19 task force is of the view that children with comorbidities should receive priority jabs, meaning thereby that healthy children are not at high risk. In any case, even though over 19 States have re-opened schools and the rest will shortly decide on sending children back to classes, there is no indication that the vaccine for children will be available in the coming few weeks.
The ZyCoV-D vaccine has received Emergency Use Authorisation for use in 12-17 years and the field trials are on. Bharat Biotech says its Covaxin for children has tested safe in trials. Biological E’s Corbevax has got the approval to conduct trials on children above five years. Covovax vaccine of Serum Institute and Novavax is conducting trials at the moment. Johnson & Johnson has applied for trials in children in the 2017 years age group. Scientists are hedging their bets on child vaccines. They say they are absolutely safe, but add a rider that the risk-benefit ratio needs to be weighed carefully. They say that infections in children are nearly always mild or asymptomatic. However, there is no doubt they still need vaccinations just as they have already been immunised against various diseases. Where do they stand on the priority list, is the question. It is not an easy question to answer as two arguments pull the Government in the other direction. One is the obvious need to prioritise vulnerable adult and children's groups. Two, how far to heed the observation of the World Health Organisation that by vaccinating their children, some countries will deprive frontline workers and high-risk of poor countries of vaccines.