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A COVID-19 Vaccine For Children May Still Be Many Months Away


The first doses of an approved COVID-19 vaccine could be administered within weeks. Health care workers will be first in line. The rest of us may have to wait some months, and your children, even longer. For more on what needs to happen before a vaccine can be approved for kids, we're joined by Dr. Sallie Permar. She is a professor of pediatrics at Duke, where she has worked on vaccine development. Hi there.


SHAPIRO: So far, there's been really promising news out of the vaccine trials, but almost all the participants in these trials are adults. So is there any reason to believe the vaccine would have a different effect on children?

PERMAR: Yes. It is something that we say often in the field of pediatrics is, children are not just small adults. The immune system of children is very different than adults. And there are certain vaccines that work better in children than adults, and there's certain vaccines that work less well in children compared to adults. So they do have to be specifically studied in the pediatric population.

SHAPIRO: Would you expect that a COVID vaccine for kids could be just a smaller dose of the same vaccine that adults get or a different formula altogether?

PERMAR: That actually needs some investigation to determine what is the right dose and what is going to be also safe in children. And to not see any of the potential reactions, like arm pain or fevers or things like that, the dose does matter. And so again, they have to be tested specifically in the pediatric population before being rolled out.

SHAPIRO: Are we going to see the same kind of large-scale vaccine trials for kids that we've seen for adults, like tens of thousands of children enrolled in these trials?

PERMAR: Yeah, so the good news is that the vaccines have been so effective in adults that what we may be able to do in a pediatric population is just look for whether the children respond similarly or even better than adults. And using some of the information that we gather from the adult trials, like what level of immune response is needed to protect against the infection, there may be able to be trial designs that are much smaller for the pediatric population to just establish that the vaccines can be just as effective at eliciting a protective immune response in children compared to adults.

SHAPIRO: I hate to ask you to guess, but could you forecast when there might be a safe, effective vaccine widely available for children?

PERMAR: It will be hard to know exactly how long it will take. But I think I'm very hopeful in that I've - we've seen such rapid progress in the adult population. But I would - do want to encourage our vaccine manufacturers and the funders of these vaccine trials to quickly move to the pediatric populations. I really think there's no reason to delay, but it will be several additional months and likely late 2021 before we have enough data on pediatric patients to have an approval for that age group.

SHAPIRO: I mean, I guess to get specific, I think a lot of parents understand that the spring semester is going to be a wash and there won't be a vaccine in time. But fall semester of next year, should they hold out hope?

PERMAR: I think that would be a great target to be able to have some pediatric trial data before the opening of the school doors next fall.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) I can hear you're not making any promises. You're like, it's a worthy goal. We'll try.

PERMAR: It is, and I very much hope that we can stay on track because, again, I think that, you know, we have done such a disservice to our children by closing schools without closing other sectors of our businesses that we know are problematic for transmission, like indoor restaurants and bars. And so really, children are suffering not as much from the disease itself compared to adults, but really in the way that we've addressed this pandemic. And that should be motivation to get these trials underway as soon as possible, get these innovations and these really remarkable products that are being developed to the pediatric population and serve our children and put our children first because they are who we're going to rely on to fight the next pandemic.

SHAPIRO: That's Dr. Sallie Permar, a professor of pediatrics, microbiology and immunology at the Duke University School of Medicine. Thanks a lot.

PERMAR: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.