Covid-19 vaccine for kids expected early next year – Expert Reaction

The Government anticipates rolling out the paediatric version of the Pfizer vaccine by the end of January 2022, pending Medsafe approval.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said this afternoon that officials were “well advanced” in planning to extend the vaccine to 5- to 11-year-olds. Medicines regulator Medsafe’s advisory committee will receive advice around mid-December.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the announcement.

Dr Jin Russell, Developmental Paediatrician, Starship Children’s Hospital and PhD Candidate, School of Population Health, University of Auckland, comments:

“I’m delighted to hear Minister Hipkins announce that the Pfizer vaccine rollout for 5-11 year old children will likely begin before the end of January. In the current delta outbreak, every week we wait translates to hundreds more children infected with Covid-19 and being put into isolation because children are the last remaining unvaccinated group in the population.

“While Covid-19 is most often a mild or asymptomatic illness in children, severe illness can happen, and is expected to be inequitably felt. Even though children tend to experience much milder infections than older adults, they also suffer from the indirect impacts of Covid-19, such as infected or hospitalised family members, having to quarantine or isolate, and inability to attend school. This is especially true for Māori communities. According to the 2018 Census, 32 per cent of Māori are under 15-years of age, versus 19.6 per cent among the total population. The rare but severe complication of MIS-C (multisystem inflammatory syndrome) has been found to be more frequent among Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and Pacific children in overseas studies, raising concerns that similar inequities would occur here.

“We have a second shot at achieving an equitable paediatric vaccine rollout. A school-based rollout, alongside existing vaccine clinics, would be the most equitable in terms of access. Reaching children with certain pre-existing conditions, children with vulnerable household members, and Māori children should be prioritised for the paediatric vaccine rollout.”

No conflicts of interest.

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

“It’s great news that the Government is looking to rollout the paediatric vaccine by the end of January, pending Medsafe approval. We really need this vaccine in our community, where there are a lot of vulnerable young children. This vaccine is safe in children, it’s been proven already overseas, so we just need to get on with it to make everyone safe against COVID-19.

“One of the critical things we have to remember is that we just don’t know the long-term consequences for our children of being infected by the COVID-19 virus or having long COVID. The only way to protect against that is through the paediatric vaccine, so I’m really pleased that the Government is being very precautionary and looking at getting this into our kids soon.”

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.

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Immunologist, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific Office, and Senior Lecturer, Pathology & Molecular Medicine, University of Otago Wellington, comments:

“It was announced today that the Government was in the advanced planning stages for organising COVID-19 vaccinations in Aotearoa New Zealand for children aged 5 to 11 years – pending Medsafe approvals for a paediatric version of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

“Paediatric doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine are approximately 1/3 of the adult dose and are being secured from Pfizer with the anticipated roll-out planned for January 2022.

“The vaccination rollout for this cohort will be an important step given that Delta is continuing to spread across Aotearoa New Zealand, and now with recent reporting of the new Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in other countries including Australia. Much more information is still needed about the Omicron variant, and about how protective our current COVID-19 vaccines might be against it.

“With the vaccination roll-out to begin in 2022, the 5–11-year-old age bracket will be the most recent cohort to be added to the vaccination programme. This means our children will have had much less time to get their vaccine and be protected against COVID-19.

“Of those affected by the current Delta outbreak, a total of 1680 or 20 per cent were children aged nine years and under, were infected by the virus and ended up with COVID-19 – this also included babies and a six-week-old. Although more likely to have mild or asymptomatic disease, children can still catch the virus and become unwell, end up with long COVID-19, and for children and youth with underlying medical conditions, have a higher risk of serious illness and hospitalisation.

“In the meantime, until our children have access to an approved COVID-19 vaccine, we need to keep them safe from COVID-19. The best way to keep them protected right now is to ensure we’re vaccinated, and also that others coming into contact with them are vaccinated also.

“It will be critical to ensure an equity focus for ongoing and future vaccination efforts that results in appropriate and targeted approaches for these children and their families and aiga, that reduces barriers and builds trust, to ensure help and assistance gets out to those who need it most.

“At least 90 – 95 per cent full vaccination levels especially for Māori and Pacific peoples will help keep our most vulnerable communities safe from COVID-19 – this includes our children and young people.

“Leaving any of our most vulnerable behind and unprotected, given the adverse health impact already seen for vulnerable groups in Aotearoa New Zealand, will have long-term consequences and impact.

“Vaccination is still key – please get vaccinated and help others do the same.”

No conflicts of interest.