COVID-19: Is it worth giving the Pfizer jab to 12-year-olds? Vaccine experts now face an ethical dilemma
The clinical trial results released today by the MHRA show once again just how good the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is.
It not only protects adults to an impressively high degree; we can now say with some certainty that it safeguards older children too.
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It is now up to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to advise on whether this entire age group should be vaccinated, a decision fraught with ethical complexities.
The question they will have to ponder is whether it is worth giving the vaccine to people who are only at limited danger from COVID-19.
When it comes to older adults, the risk-benefit calculation is clear: the vaccine is very safe and the virus is very dangerous.
But younger adults are far less likely to be hit hard.
If we have doses to spare for them, wouldn’t we be better off distributing it to at-risk adults around the world?
One aspect of this consideration is safety.
If a vaccine is potentially risky, then giving it to someone who doesn’t need it seems ethically dubious.
But of the 2,000 children aged between 12 and 15 who were involved in the clinical trial, none reported any new side effects.
Most experienced nothing more than a sore arm or tiredness.
This is why the JCVI will be looking carefully at the data on effectiveness, particularly the parts which suggested that the vaccine might be able to stop the spread of coronavirus.
None of the children in the vaccinated group caught COVID-19 once their dose had kicked in.
By contrast, there were 16 cases in the placebo group.
Professor Neil Ferguson has suggested that the variant formerly known as the Indian variant might be as much as 60% more transmissible than the Kent variant.
If this is the case, then it may be hard to contain it by vaccinating adults alone.
Adding teenagers to the vaccine roll-out would not only give them individual protection (in particular from long COVID, where there have been some worrying signs about children’s susceptibility) but also benefit everyone by helping to control the spread.
Of course, the same calculation applies to the rest of the world as well.
Even if we do take this step, we will have to think very hard about the need for vaccines globally.
International leadership on this issue is needed, and fast.
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