How COVID shots for children help prevent dangerous new variants

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Cadell Walker rushed to get her 9-year-old daughter Solome vaccinated against COVID-19 — not just to protect her, but to prevent the coronavirus from spreading and spawning even more dangerous variants.

“Loving your neighbor is something we really believe, and we want to be good members of the community and want to model that thinking for our daughter,” said the 40-year-old Louisville mom, who recently took Solome to a local high school. for her shot. “The only way to truly beat COVID is for us all to work together for the greater good.”

Scientists agree. Any infection — be it in an adult in Yemen or a child in Kentucky — gives the virus another chance to mutate. Protecting a new, large part of the population anywhere in the world limits those opportunities.

That effort was given a boost with 28 million American children ages 5 to 11 now eligible for pediatric doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Moves elsewhere, such as Austria’s recent decision to require all adults to be vaccinated and even the US allowing booster shots for all adults on Fridays, are helping by further reducing the chances of new infection.

Vaccinating children also means reducing silent spread, as most have no or mild symptoms when they contract the virus. When the virus spreads undetected, scientists say, it will continue unabated. And as more people contract it, the chance of new variants increases.

David O’Connor, a virology expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, likens infections to “lots we give the virus.” The jackpot? A variant that is even more dangerous than the infectious delta that is now circulating.

“The fewer people infected, the fewer shoots it has and the better off we all will be when it comes to generating the variants,” he said, adding that variants are even more common in people with weakened immune systems that have it. harbor the virus for a long time.

Researchers disagree on the extent to which children have influenced the course of the pandemic. Early research suggested that they did not contribute much to the viral spread. But some experts say children have played a significant role in spreading infectious variants such as alpha and delta this year.

According to estimates from the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub, a collection of university and medical research organizations that consolidates models of how the pandemic might unfold, it could really make a difference in the future. The latest estimates from the hub show that for this period from November through March 12, 2022, vaccinating 5- to 11-year-olds would prevent approximately 430,000 COVID cases in the overall U.S. population if a new variant did not emerge. If a variant 50% more transmissible than delta were to appear in late fall, 860,000 cases would be prevented, “a big impact,” said Pennsylvania State University project leader Katriona Shea.

Delta remains dominant for now, accounting for more than 99% of the coronavirus specimens analyzed in the United States. Scientists don’t know exactly why. dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University, said it may be intrinsically more contagious, or at least partially evade the protection people get from vaccines or have been previously infected.

“It’s probably a combination of those things,” he said. “But there is also very good and growing evidence that delta is simply more suitable, meaning it is able to grow to higher levels faster than other variants being studied. So if people get delta, they are more likely to become contagious.”

Ray said that delta is “a big family” of viruses and that the world is now swimming in a kind of “delta soup.”

“We have a lot of descendants of delta circulating in many places with no clear winners,” Ray said, adding that it’s difficult to know from genetic traits which can have an advantage, or which non-delta variants can dethrone delta.

“I often say it’s like seeing a car on the side of the road with racing slicks and racing stripes and a wing on the back and a big engine,” Ray said. “You know it looks like it could be a real contender, but until you see it on track with other cars, you don’t know if it’s going to win.”

Another big unknown: Dangerous variants can still emerge in largely unvaccinated parts of the world and make their way to America, even if American children join the vaccinated ones.

Louisville’s mother, Walker, said she and her husband can’t do anything about distant threats, but they can sign up their daughter for vaccinations at Jefferson County Public Schools sites a recent weekend. Solome is adopted from Ethiopia and is prone to developing pneumonia following respiratory illness after being exposed to tuberculosis as a baby.

She said she wants to protect other children because “it’s not good to get sick.”

As a nurse leaned in to give Solome her injection, Walker held her daughter’s hand and praised her for picking out a post-jab sticker fit for a brave kid who was just doing her part to get a contain the pandemic.

“Wonder Woman,” Walker said. “Perfect.”

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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