Photo: SELF Magazine

Covid vaccines for early teens – Expert Reaction

Children as young as 12 can have their vaccine from 1st Sept, or even earlier if they’re accompanying a pre-booked adult.

The decision has come from Cabinet today, after Medsafe gave provisional approval for the 12-15 age bracket in June. 

The SMC asked experts to comment on the science behind the decision.

Dr Maia Brewerton, Clinical Immunologist, Allergist and Immunopathologist, Auckland and Waitemata DHBs; and researcher, Malaghan Institute:

“As a mum and as an immunologist I was pleased to hear the Pfizer vaccine will now be offered to all New Zealanders aged 12 and upwards. We have good clinical trial data that shows 12-15 year olds have a strong protective immune response to the Pfizer vaccine. Wisely New Zealand has not raced into this decision, the safety data has been carefully reviewed and will continue to be closely monitored. With the earlier viral strains younger age groups were less likely to get sick or transmit the virus and the benefits of vaccinating this age group were less clear however the situation has changed with the rise of the more contagious Delta variant and we are seeing more young people with the virus in hospitals overseas.  We don’t yet know what the long term health effects are for our young people who get COVID-19. Although very uncommon the Delta variant can still cause serious illness or very rarely death in this age group. Vaccinating our teenagers provides them individual protection against the virus.

“Overall young people have a much busier social calendar, interact with more people and the contact is often physically closer when compared to older age groups. This is the perfect setting for a respiratory virus to spread and modelling shows vaccinating younger age groups will increase community protection. Vaccinating teenagers has wider benefits beyond the individual and will help to protect vulnerable New Zealanders living in their homes and community.

“We should not underestimate the negative effects this pandemic has had on our young people, both here and overseas.  I will be protecting my children, my whanau and our community by getting my own children vaccinated when it is their turn in the queue.”

Dr Brewerton is a member of the Strategic COVID-19 Public Health Advisory Group.

Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“This decision from Cabinet is very welcome. We’ve seen Covid-19 outbreaks in schools before now, so it’s great to know that children will be protected in the future. There is concerning evidence coming through now about the impacts of Covid-19 infection on children, for example potential effects on the developing brain. We shouldn’t be exposing our children to risk from this new virus while these effects are not fully understood.

“Assessing the impacts of the vaccine is more straightforward because vaccination is studied in a carefully controlled way. Here in Aotearoa we’ve had an opportunity to assess the results of vaccine trials in children aged 12-15 in the US and elsewhere, followed by population-wide uptake in many countries. In the US alone, just under 7 million children in this age group have had at least one vaccine dose, along with a further 4 million 16-17 year-olds. With that amount of experience to draw on, the evidence for this age group is very clear: getting vaccinated is a much safer choice than getting ill with the infection.

“These good results in teenagers raise the question of vaccinating under-12s. That work is ongoing and we should have the results very soon. At that point it will be important to make a swift but considered decision. If the vaccine is judged to be important for protecting younger children, we will need to start making practical arrangements for implementing that decision right away. As we’re all very well aware by now the Delta variant is extremely transmissible, including in children, and an outbreak can happen at any time.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Jin Russell, PhD Student, School of Population Health, University of Auckland, comments:

“A lot of parents will be relieved to hear that children in the 12-15 year age group are able to receive the Pfizer vaccination from 1st September, and earlier if their parents are attending a vaccination clinic and the children are brought along too.

“In the USA, the CDC Covid Data tracker shows that 5 million children in this age group have been vaccinated completely against Covid-19, and of these children, almost half a million became fully vaccinated in the last 14 days. Now New Zealand children can join their overseas peers in being protected.

“Although the overall risk to children is very low compared with that to adults, children who have comorbidities and disabilities are at higher risk of severe illness and hospitalisation if they are infected. We are hearing from parents of disabled children that many are keen to see their children protected.

“I hope that the government will announce strategies to make vaccination an easy option for children, including options for vaccination when schools reopen and options for children with sensory needs.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Tony Walls, University of Otago, Christchurch; and Paediatric Infectious Disease Specialist, comments:

“It is important for young people 12-15 to get vaccinated against COVID-19 for their personal protection.

“I would not be recommending vaccinating children younger than this until there is sufficient safety data in this age group. For NZ the priority should be vaccinating the elderly and those at high risk of severe complications of Covid.

“Children under 16 years of age are generally at less risk of severe disease than older adults if they are infected. While they can get infected and may pass it on to others they are unlikely to be a major source of transmission in our community should there be a large outbreak.

“The Dougherty report from Australia concluded that vaccinating 12-15 year olds would have little impact on the spread of COVID in Australia.”

Note: Tony is the Chair of the Infection and Immunisation Special Interest Group of the Paediatric Society of NZ.

No conflict of interest.

Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen (Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Hinerangi), Clinical Director, National Hauora Coalition, comments:

“It is safe and it is the right thing to do.

“Maori and Pacific populations have a much younger age structure. This helps our communities to be protected.

“And yes we should be unequivocal, when the data confirms that the vaccine is safe for younger age groups then we should extend the programme for those younger age groups. We need as many people vaccinated as possible.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Rachelle Binny, Mathematical Modeller, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research; and Principal Investigator, Te Pūnaha Matatini:

“The announcement that 12-15 year olds will now be eligible to receive the vaccine is good news. The more children that are vaccinated, the lower risk our schools become. This makes it more likely that we can keep schools open when there are outbreaks of COVID-19 like the one we are currently experiencing, and avoid disruption to our children’s education.

“Recent Te Pūnaha Matatini modelling, led by Nic Steyn, estimated the effect of New Zealand’s vaccine rollout on the spread of COVID-19. We looked at how many people would need to be vaccinated before we’d be able to relax border restrictions and avoid large community outbreaks without the need for lockdowns. Our modelling showed that the more people are vaccinated, the less we will need to rely on other measures like lockdowns. Every additional person who gets vaccinated will reduce the number of pathways the virus can use to spread through our communities. This will help us to contain the current outbreak and future outbreaks.”

Conflict of interest statement: I am partly funded by MBIE for research on mathematical modelling of COVID-19.

Dr Nikki Turner, Director, Immunisation Advisory Centre, University of Auckland, comments:

“Following Medsafe’s approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for 12-15 year olds, the Government has now extended eligibility of the COVID-19 vaccination programme to include this age group.

“Taking a whānau-centred approach, as parents become eligible to book in for a vaccination they will now also have the option to book their children aged 12 – 15 years. Young people aged 12 – 15 will be able to access the vaccine through a variety of ways most convenient to them and their family/whānau, for example:

  • At their general practice or community pharmacy offering COVID-19 vaccinations.
  • At a community vaccination hub.
  • At other community-based sites such as faith-based locations or marae.

“At this stage, a school-based COVID-19 vaccination programme is not planned for 2021.

“The most common side effects in young people aged 12 to 15 are like those in people aged 16 and above and the vaccine is considered to be effective with a high safety profile for all approved age groups. A short video about how the COVID-19 vaccine works in New Zealand is available with more information.

“Consistent with the National Immunisation Schedule, IMAC recommends that a parent or guardian is present to provide verbal co-consent as best practice. While children aged 12 and up can legally give their own consent, the preference is that this should be the exception and not the rule.

“With enough vaccine available for everyone eligible to be vaccinated including 12-15 year olds, the extension provides more opportunity to provide the best possible protection against COVID-19 in New Zealand.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Note: The Immunisation Advisory Centre (IMAC) has a contract with the Ministry of Health to delivery education and training to the healthcare sector for COVID-19 vaccines.

Professor Graham Le Gros, Immunologist, Director Malaghan Institute of Medical Research; and Programme Director Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo, comments:

“The use of the Pfizer vaccine in 12-15 year olds has now been shown to be safe with children having the same sort of reactions and responses as adults.

“This is good news as it means we can roll out the vaccine to more people in New Zealand and create a safety barrier of immune people around our members of the community who are vulnerable to severe disease if they get infected with the delta strain. The virus is out there we cannot go on thinking we will keep it out forever, even if we manage to close the spread of infection from this Auckland outbreak, inevitably at some time in the future it will get in again and again.

“I think what is critical is that as a nation we now seriously focus on getting as many people vaccinated as possible, it is the only way our country can return to normality for the sake of our health and people’s livelihoods.”

Conflict of interest statement: Professor Le Gros is Programme Director of the Government-funded Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo, a partnership between the Malaghan Institute, the University of Otago and Victoria University of Wellington.