Fri. Dec 3rd, 2021

The author is a science commentator

The utterances came faster than a pinball. On October 29, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the emergency use of lower-dose Covid-19 vaccines in children between the ages of five and 11. Four days later, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unanimously approved it for the 28 million children in that age group, with immediate effect. Discussion opened last week.

Anyone who observes this decisive sprint can conclude that there is a pandemic going on. Compare that to the UK, where discussions about adolescent vaccinations came from a bumpy statement to the next. Pfizer stimulants were rated as safe and effective for 12- to 15-year-olds by the British medicine regulator in early June. But three months later, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) recommended them only for teens with serious medical conditions, citing marginal health benefits and possible side effects as barriers to a wider rollout. The fact that Israel, the USA, Canada and several EU countries millions of teens who are barely registered have been vaccinated. On September 13, the government’s chief medical officers recommended a single-dose regimen. The combination of a late decision, stuttering implementation and parental confusion over conflicting messages meant that by the first week of October, one out of 14 secondary school children are infected.

Now, the publication of relevant JCVI discussions sheds new light on how Britain has become an outlier. The minutes show an obsession with the rare vaccine side effect of myocarditis – a temporary and treatable form of heart inflammation – and an almost dismissive attitude towards the disadvantages of Covid, which includes infant deaths. The JCVI estimated that 1 million first doses in 12- to 15-year-olds could cause up to 17 cases of myocarditis, but 87 hospital admissions and two intensive care admissions could occur. Various scientists questioned last week why the JCVI reduced the risks of mass Covid in children and set aside modeling that suggests vaccine benefits.

In fact, the committee seemed almost allergic to the idea of ​​immunizing older children. One suggestion, that the circulating virus “may offer broader immunity to children and strengthen immunity in adults”, has refuted the disputed assumption that natural infection offers superior immunity. The JCVI also considered the risk of child-to-child transmission to be low.

Professor Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London, said there was no evidence in children that immunity to an infection was better than that of a vaccine. “The same goes for the even stranger view that infection does not spread among adolescents,” he said. Stephen Griffin, a virologist at Leeds University, tweeted it the JCVI’s statements were “abominable”.

The discussions about adolescent vaccination, and the secrecy surrounding it, invite serious reflection. Decision making in a pandemic can never be perfect, but it can be timely. If the JCVI minutes were published in the summer, flawed assumptions could be challenged, the postponement to chief medical officers accelerated and vaccinated willing teenagers before schools reopened.

Instead, extreme caution became paralyzing. As predicted, secondary schools – crammed with unvaccinated, unmasked children – became virus hotspots just as immunity began to decline in older people. The JCVI denies that they are acting too slowly and mysteriously, or pushing for natural infection. This has blamed delays in releasing minutes on increased workloads.

The UK will next have to judge whether younger children should be vaccinated. This assessment must be done quickly and transparently. There is a pandemic going on.

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