The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday expanded the Pfizer-BioNTech’s emergency use authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine to include adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15, The New York Times reports.
It’s a crucial step in the nation’s steady recovery from the pandemic and a boon to millions of American families eager for a return to normalcy. The drugmakers originally obtained the FDA’s authorization on Dec. 11 for use of the two-dose vaccine in individuals 16 years of age and older.
The authorization caps weeks of anticipation among parents, who have been grappling with how to conduct their lives when only the adults in a household are immunized. It removes an obstacle to school reopenings by reducing the threat of transmission in classrooms, and affords more of the nearly 17 million children in this age group opportunities to attend summer camps, sleepovers and Little League games.
“This is great news,” said Dr. Kristin Oliver, a pediatrician and vaccine expert at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “It feels like we’ve been waiting a long time to start protecting children in this age group.” The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is already available to anyone over 16.
Acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock called Monday’s authorization a “significant step in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Today’s action allows for a younger population to be protected from COVID-19, bringing us closer to returning to a sense of normalcy and to ending the pandemic. Parents and guardians can rest assured that the agency undertook a rigorous and thorough review of all available data, as we have with all of our COVID-19 vaccine emergency use authorizations,” Woodock said in a prepared statement.
The FDA’s go-ahead is not the final hurdle. An advisory committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to meet shortly to review the data and make recommendations for the vaccine’s use in 12- to 15-year-olds.
If the committee endorses the vaccine for that age group, as expected, immunizations in theory can begin immediately. Clinical trials have shown that these children may safely receive the dose already available for adults.
In a clinical trial, Pfizer and BioNTech enrolled 2,260 participants ages 12 and 15 and gave them either two doses of the vaccine or a placebo three weeks apart. The researchers recorded 18 cases of symptomatic coronavirus infection in the placebo group, and none among the children who received the vaccine, indicating that it was highly effective at preventing symptomatic illness.
The vaccine also appeared to be safe for these children, with side effects comparable to those seen in trial participants who are 16 to 25 years old. Fevers were slightly more common among inoculated 12- to 15-year-olds; about 20 percent of them had fevers, compared with 17 percent in the older age group.
The trend toward more fevers at younger ages was consistent with observations in an earlier trial, said Dr. Bill Gruber, a senior vice president at Pfizer and a pediatrician.
The trial results were a “trifecta” of good news, Dr. Gruber added: “We have safety, we got the immune response we wanted — it was actually better than what we saw in the 16- to 25-year-old population — and we had outright demonstration of efficacy.”
The company is still gathering information on potential asymptomatic infections by continuing to test the trial participants for the coronavirus every two weeks and checking them for antibodies produced in response to a natural infection.
The push to immunize children may run into the same problems with hesitancy that have plagued attempts to inoculate adults. In one recent poll, 30 percent of parents said they would have their children vaccinated right away, while 26 percent said they planned to wait to see how the vaccine was working.
Most of the other parents said they would definitely not have their children vaccinated, or would do so only if schools required it. All 50 states require certain vaccines for children who attend school, but those mandates apply only to vaccines that have been fully approved by the FDA.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been authorized only for emergency use
The companies have applied to the F.D.A. for full approval, but that process is expected to take several months. Even after approval, students may still opt out by citing medical reasons or religious beliefs.
Pfizer and BioNTech began testing the vaccine in children ages 5 to 11 in March, and last month extended the trial to even younger children, ages 2 to 5. The companies next plan to test children who are 6 months to 2 years old.
Assuming trial results are encouraging, the companies expect to apply to the F.D.A. in September for emergency authorization to administer the vaccine to children ages 2 to 11.
Results from trials of Moderna’s vaccine in 12- to 17-year-olds are expected in the next few weeks. Findings from another trial of the company’s vaccine in children 6 months to 12 years old should be available in the second half of this year.
AstraZeneca is testing its vaccine in children 6 months and older. Johnson & Johnson plans to wait for results from trials in participants older than 12 before testing its vaccine in younger children.