Covid-19 vaccination programmes are progressing steadily in the West, giving a growing share of the adult population strong protection against the virus. Should children be next? At first the question was moot; in the rush to develop safe and effective jabs for a disease that hit older people hardest, drug firms excluded young children from their trials. Pfizer-BioNtech tested theirs among those aged 16 and older, so everyone from that age is eligible for that vaccine. The other vaccines authorised in the EU – from Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson – only have approval for use in over-18s, though in Ireland the latter two are at present available only for over-50s because of their links to a very rare blood clotting condition.
All the major manufacturers are now trialling their vaccines among younger groups. Canada and the US have given the green light for use of the Pfizer-BioNTech product for those aged 12-15, and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is expected to issue its own recommendation on its use in that cohort early next month.
There are strong arguments for inoculating children against Covid-19. While they are much less likely to get seriously ill from it, there are a small number of children who have suffered severe complications from the disease. And protecting helps to protect the community by making it harder for the virus to transmit.
But even if the EMA in time approves any or all of the vaccines for use in children, choosing the timing of any such extension will not be a straightforward decision. The morality of vaccinating healthy children in the West while frontline healthcare workers and vulnerable people in the developing world go unprotected is a real issue. It has prompted the head of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to call on wealthy countries to hold off on vaccinating children and instead to donate doses to poorer states through the Covax vaccine-sharing initiative. France and Sweden have taken the lead by donating shots to Covax after inoculating their priority populations. Others should follow.