(CN) — As the U.S. closes in on the one-year mark since adults first got vaccinated against Covid-19, offering the vaccine to children as young as 5 years old became a real, even imminent, possibility on Tuesday as experts paved the way toward vaccinating the youngest age group yet.
After a long day of presentations and questions, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s independent advisory panel voted in favor of allowing the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine to be used in the 28 million American kids ages 5 to 11 years old.
Before voting on a single yes or no question — whether the benefits would outweigh the risks of expanding vaccine access to young children — panel members gave weight to the unknowns that come with new vaccines.
Some lamented the framing of the question itself. They wanted kids with health conditions, like transplant recipients or those with obesity, to be able to get vaccinated, but said that questions remain about how broadly the vaccine should be implemented in the youngest eligible.
“I’m torn,” said Dr. Cody Meissner, a professor of pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. He said he believed the vaccine is effective, and wants to be able to offer it to parents who have been anxiously awaiting the opportunity.
"I am just worried that, if we say yes, that the states are going to mandate administration of this vaccine for children to children, in order to go to school, and I do not agree with that," he said. "I think that would be an error at this time, until we get more information about the safety."
Most vaccine mandates for adults came after the FDA fully approved the vaccine for those 18 and older.
Conversations about kids’ health are especially difficult, noted Dr. Amanda Cohn, chief medical officer of the National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“When we are talking about children we both don't accept death and severe outcomes in the same way that maybe we accept, to some degree, in older age groups. But we also don’t accept risks,” Cohn said.
While older adults are harder hit by the coronavirus compared to kids, 584 children have died from Covid-19, according to the latest data from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.
“To me, the question is pretty clear,” Cohn said. “We don't want children to be dying of Covid, even if it is far fewer children than adults, and we don’t want them in the ICU.”
Panelists agreed, nearly unanimously, with 17 yes votes, zero no votes and one abstention.
Dr. Eric J. Rubin, a physician at Boston's Brigham and Women’s Hospital and immunology professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, noted that the lack of data on side effects would only improve by expanding the vaccine’s use.
“We’re never going to learn about how safe this vaccine is unless we start giving it,” he said. “That’s just the way it goes.”
Dr. James Hildreth Sr., a professor and chief executive officer of Meharry Medical College, stressed the need for follow-up studies by the CDC after the vaccine is rolled out to kids.
“I voted yes primarily because I want to make sure that the children who really need this vaccine — primarily the Black and brown children in our country — get the vaccine,” he said. “I hope that the [CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices] will prioritize the vaccine, in some ways, and make sure that that actually happens.”