Schools could hold vaccination clinics for teenagers if Covid jabs for young people are given the go-ahead, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has suggested.
Professor Russell Viner, from University College London, who advises the Government, said there was not yet enough safety data to say jabs should happen, while the direct health benefit to children of being vaccinated was low.
But he said a schools-based programme would be the best choice if the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) decides vaccines should be given to youngsters.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has approved the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for use among children aged 12 and over but the JCVI is yet to decide whether they should receive it.
Prof Viner told a briefing hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine that the risk of death from Covid-19 in this country for children and young people is about one in 0.5 million, and the great majority of those cases were clinically vulnerable.
“The risk of coming into intensive care, so having severe disease, is about one in 50,000 – these events are exceptionally rare,” he added.
“This is about the balance of risks. The benefits to them (children) of being vaccinated, are very low, the risks are unclear.”
He said there was published data from Pfizer regarding safety for around 3,000 teenagers, and a press release from Moderna suggesting safety, but with no published data.
“So we actually have very little safety data,” he said, adding that the “benefits to them (teenagers) in a direct sense in terms of health” are little, though there are benefits in terms of keeping education open.
Schools are almost certainly the best platform to provide Covid vaccines to healthy teenagers, if and when a decision is made to do thatProfessor Russell Viner
He said the “safety bar” needs to be very high for teenagers but “exceptionally high for children”, adding that they had quite different immune responses to adults.
On whether teens could consent to vaccines, he said those who are deemed competent and who are fully informed could “consent to taking treatment against the wishes of their parent”.
These principles would and should apply to vaccination if JCVI approves their use, he added.
Prof Viner also said he thought “schools are almost certainly the best platform to provide Covid vaccines to healthy teenagers, if and when a decision is made to do that.
“Quite a lot of communication with parents will be important, both at a national level but also by schools and others who are providing the vaccines.”
On how much vaccinating teenagers could help the pandemic, he said there are a “whole series of unanswered questions about how high we need to get our teenage vaccination rates, if we do decide to vaccinate teenagers, to contribute to overall benefit to the population”.
He added: “I’m hesitant to use the word herd immunity. But in terms of overall benefit to the population, I think it is unclear.”
On whether children should be jabbed when adults around the world have not even had one vaccine, Prof Viner said he has “a lot of sympathy” with the argument that other countries should get vaccines first.
“I don’t think it entirely trumps the need to vaccinate some of our teenagers, those particularly that are clinically vulnerable – these are a relatively small group,” he said.
“I think over time, once vaccine supply is less of an issue, my personal belief is we should be vaccinating our teenagers at the same time as contributing towards international supply, once we have adequate safety data.”
Prof Viner was also asked about whether the 10-day isolation policy for schools should end.
He said the schools policy was “quite a rational policy, and I think it’s been very effective, but I think there are real equity issues about it, once all the adults are vaccinated”.
He said it needed to be “re-thought in an evidence-based way”.
The expert said one of his “real concerns” once all adults are jabbed is that children and young people “will then be the only substantial part of the population that are not vaccinated”.
He said children will then become the source of most infection, adding: “What we will do by vaccinating all the adults is change the dynamics of this pandemic so that children and young people become the source of most infections to vulnerable adults.
“I think that’s one of the reasons, in my mind, that we should think about vaccinating them.”
I’m in favour, if we can and when we can, of vaccinating children as well so that the whole population is immune to the point where the virus can no longer circulateProfessor Jeffrey Almond
Earlier, an adviser to the Government’s vaccine taskforce said children may need to be vaccinated against Covid-19 so that the UK population can reach herd immunity.
The UK’s vaccination programme is only open to adults, and some children in exceptional circumstances, and so far 62.4% of the adult population have been fully vaccinated.
Across the whole population, 49.2% of people are double-jabbed.
Professor Jeffrey Almond told Sky News that jabs for young people could be needed to reach the benchmark for herd immunity.
“At the start of this we reckoned that you needed somewhere around 65% to 70% of the whole population to be immune in order to have that herd immunity which prevents the virus spreading,” he said.
“Because, with 80% of the adult population (vaccinated), if that only represents 50% of the whole population, we’re still too low to prevent the virus spreading and it will spread in kids.
“So, I’m in favour, if we can and when we can, of vaccinating children as well so that the whole population is immune to the point where the virus can no longer circulate.”
From a population perspective, it’s very clear that we have to vaccinate childrenMartin McKee, professor of European public health
His comments were echoed by Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of Independent Sage, who said there was a clear case for vaccinating children.
He told Times Radio: “I think people in the JCVI, who are looking at this from the perspective of the individual child and looking at the risk/benefit balance, are less enthusiastic about vaccinating children, but I’m a public health physician. From a population perspective, it’s very clear that we have to vaccinate children.”
However, Calum Semple, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, expressed his reservations about vaccinating children.
He told BBC Breakfast: “The risk of severe harm to children (from Covid) is incredibly low. Vaccines are safe, but not entirely risk-free.
“I’m not convinced the evidence base there is strong enough to support vaccination of children because we don’t have complete safety data for the vaccines that we would want to use.”