The delay in deciding whether to vaccinate children over 12 against Covid is unlikely to help resolve what is already a contentious issue.
A survey by the Office for National Statistics has found that almost 90% of parents in England would favour giving their children a vaccine if offered, and school leaders have also backed jabs for pupils.
Opinion among scientists, however, is less clear cut. A key question is whether the benefits of vaccinating children outweigh any risks and in particular, whether those benefits extend beyond the protection afforded to adults by reducing spread of the disease from younger age groups.
Some argue that the direct health benefits to children may be low because they are rarely seriously affected by the infection, although there have been reports of long Covid and a complication called multi-system inflammatory syndrome.
“Given the low risk of Covid for most teenagers, it is not immoral to think that they may be better protected by natural immunity generated through infection than by asking them to take the *possible* risk of a vaccine,” Prof Robert Dingwall, a sociologist and member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation(JCVI), tweeted last month.
Other experts question whether it is morally right for countries to be giving jabs to children while other nations have yet to vaccinate their more vulnerable groups.
Proponents say the benefits of vaccination outweigh any risks both in terms of children’s health and their education, and that jabs have the potential to reduce disruption to schooling. Nearly 840,000 pupils were out of class for Covid-related reasons last week.
“Although relatively mild in a high proportion of cases, Covid-19 does still make children poorly. Individuals are being hospitalised, and there is emerging evidence around long Covid in paediatric populations,” said Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton. Without vaccinating children is it unlikely the herd immunity threshold will be crossed given highly transmissible forms of the virus such as the Delta variant, he said.
“We know from existing vaccine rollouts that young adults are safely protected, and millions of older children in the US have been immunised,” he added, saying the JCVI’s decision on the issue should be made public soon.
Prof John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and the Spi-M modelling sub-group, is among other prominent scientists who have backed the release of the JCVI recommendations. Secondary school pupils should be vaccinated over the summer before the start of the new academic year, he said.
While debate continues, the delay in publishing the JCVI recommendations is not only likely to cause further frustration, while the impact of vaccinating children on the epidemic via the modelling of cases has yet to be completed.
“JCVI has not made any recommendations regarding children and Covid vaccines,” one of the Spi-M participants said. “Spi-M has thus not produced anything regarding children.”