By Orville Williams
If it were up to some health officials here in Antigua and Barbuda, steps would’ve already been taken to get children vaccinated against Covid-19, given the sustained threat, particularly from the dangerous Delta variant. In lieu of that authority, they optimistically await the feedback from ongoing clinical trials to plot the way forward.
The official advice from the leading health agency on the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO), is that the vaccines are safe for most people 18 years and older, and as “children and adolescents tend to have milder disease compared to adults – unless they are part of a group at higher risk of severe Covid-19 – it is less urgent to vaccinate them than older people”.
That advice is subject to change due to the threat posed by the Delta variant and physician, Dr Courtney Lewis, is one of many medical professionals looking forward to that adjustment in the anti-Covid approach.
Speaking to Observer yesterday, Dr Lewis – who is also the Deputy Chairman of the National Technical Working Group (NTWG) on Covid-19 vaccinations – explained that they have long held the view that children deserve to be allowed to receive the vaccines, to give them the best protection against the virus.
What has held up that consideration on the international front, he says, is the lack of adequate proof that the vaccines are safe and effective for the youth.
“It’s not that we don’t see the need to [vaccinate the children], especially with the Delta variant [that] has no respect for any age group. To get children vaccinated has always been a priority and it has always been something that healthcare providers the world over, have wanted.
“The difficulty was, in clinical trials, people below the age of 18 were not part of the population used to test the efficacy and the safety of the vaccines. When you talk about children, people don’t want guesses [or] estimates, they want data, they want to know for sure that their children are going to be safe and it’s going to work for them.”
In addition to the advice mentioned earlier, the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) has concluded that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is suitable for use by people aged 12 years and above.
It adds that children between ages 12 and 15 — who are at high risk — may be offered this vaccine alongside other priority groups.
Dr Lewis explained further that while the focus of that advice is on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, it is certainly not due to failings on the part of any other vaccine.
“Pfizer’s clinical trials were the only ones to be completed successfully, which is why Pfizer’s the only one being recommended for paediatric patients. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the other vaccines cannot be used in children, it’s just that there’s no data to scientifically back that yet”, he said.
He added that it is likely that focus will be expanded to include other vaccines in the near future, as other manufacturers begin to catch up to Pfizer/BioNTech.
“What most vaccine companies have done now, is that they’ve gone on to actually conduct clinical trials involving patients of that age group, normally between the ages 10 or 12 and 18.
“When [they] get their paediatric-age clinical trials completed, then we will have more information, to be able to tell parents that there are other options available for your children.”
This is definitely good news for the many parents who are sweating over the health and safety of their children, especially following the recent death of a seven-month-old who became the youngest person to contract the virus in Antigua and Barbuda.
Fingers are crossed that the green light will come for more vaccines sooner rather than later, and Dr Lewis assured that when that happens, the vaccines that are already on island should be viewed as safe and effective. Until then, he said, everyone just has to wait.
“I really and truly don’t believe that AstraZeneca or Sinopharm will be harmful to a child or hurt a child, but you have to give patients the scientific evidence that this thing is going to work for their children and it is going to be safe.”
Children in Antigua and Barbuda could actually start getting vaccinated for Covid-19 before the other vaccine manufacturers complete their clinical trials, as a portion of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines – again, approved by the WHO for age 12 and above – is expected to soon be delivered, via a donation from the US government.
It is yet to be seen, however, whether the government will actually adopt the WHO advice in this regard and approve the vaccine for use in children locally.