UK’s vaccine assessor opts against COVID jabs for children

  • General

The UK’s vaccine advisors have declined to recommend the vaccination of healthy older children against COVID-19, saying the direct health benefits are “marginal”.

However, the British government said it may join others around the world in offering the vaccines after assessing wider societal issues.

In its analysis of whether the rollout of coronavirus vaccines should be expanded to children aged between 12 and 15, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) concluded that the benefits are “marginally greater than the potential known harms”.

With just two per million of healthy children needing intensive care treatment for COVID-19, the JCVI said the “margin of benefit, based primarily on a health perspective, is considered too small to support advice on a universal program”.

In contrast, the rate among children with underlying health conditions is far higher, at over 100 per million.

As a result, the JCVI did expand the group of older children with underlying health conditions who should be offered the vaccine. These include those with chronic major heart, lung, kidney, liver and neurological conditions.

It means about 200,000 more children will be invited for either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

Though the JCVI failed to back a universal rollout to older children just as schools reopen for the new year, the UK may still end up joining others such as France, Germany, Australia and the US in offering vaccines to that group.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) last week provided advice to the federal government that the Pfizer vaccine was safe and effective for children aged 12 to 15.

The health ministers from the four UK nations — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — said they have asked their respective chief medical officers to make their own assessments in light of the JCVI’s analysis.

“People aged 12 to 15 who are clinically vulnerable to the virus have already been offered a COVID-19 vaccine, and today we’ll be expanding the offer to those with conditions such as sickle cell disease or type 1 diabetes to protect even more vulnerable children,” said British Health Secretary Sajid Javid.

“We will then consider the advice from the chief medical officers, building on the advice from the JCVI, before making a decision shortly,” he added.

Benefits ‘slightly outweigh’ risks of vaccinating children

One risk that has been identified is a condition known as myocarditis, which involves inflammation of the heart muscle.

The condition can result in short periods of hospital observation, followed by typically swift recoveries, but the JCVI concluded that the medium to long-term outcomes are still uncertain and more follow-up time is needed to get a clearer picture.

“This was a very finely balanced decision,” said Anthony Harnden, the JCVI’s deputy chairman.

Though the JCVI opted against a universal rollout to older children, it stressed that it was not within its remit to assess wider societal impacts, such as on education or children acting as sources of transmission.

Mr Javid has already asked the National Health Service (NHS) to prepare to roll out vaccinations to older children should it be be recommended by the chief medical officers.

The NHS is also preparing for possible “booster” shots for older adults.

The JCVI is expected to decide soon whether third doses should be offered to all adults or just to those above a certain age or with certain health conditions.

The government is being urged to make the decision soon, potentially before the JCVI has made its conclusion, not least because winter is approaching, a time of year when the virus finds fresh legs.