Pfizer's latest announcement that its COVID-19 vaccine works for children ages 5 to 11 and that it will seek U.S. authorization for this age group soon marked a key step toward beginning vaccinations for youngsters. But when could that happen?
Dr. Bill Gruber, a Pfizer senior vice president, told The Associated Press the companies aim to apply to the Food and Drug Administration by the end of the month for emergency use in this age group, followed shortly afterward with applications to European and British regulators.
Earlier this month, FDA chief Dr. Peter Marks told the AP that once Pfizer turns over its study results, his agency would evaluate the data “hopefully in a matter of weeks” to decide if the shots are safe and effective enough for younger kids.
The timeline follows earlier predictions from health care experts who said authorization could come this fall for kids under 12.
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Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a Pfizer board member, also told CNBC late last month that he expects U.S. drug regulators to clear the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use in children ages 5 to 11 by late fall or early winter.
The vaccine made by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech already is available for anyone 12 and older. But with kids now back in school and the extra-contagious delta variant causing a huge jump in pediatric infections, many parents are anxiously awaiting vaccinations for their younger children.
Many Western countries so far have vaccinated no younger than age 12, awaiting evidence of what's the right dose and that it works safely. Cuba last week began immunizing children as young as 2 with its homegrown vaccines and Chinese regulators have cleared two of its brands down to age 3.
Both Moderna and Pfizer have clinical trials underway for their coronavirus vaccines for kids under the age of 12 that have been going on for months.
According to a Pfizer spokesperson, Phases 2 and 3 of their clinical studies were launched in June, testing the vaccine on children between the ages of 6 months and 11 years old.
The results of studies on both vaccines were pushed back when the Food and Drug Administration asked both manufacturers to enroll more children. The request came after reports of myocarditis in some vaccine recipients under the age of 30.
“That really caused the pediatric studies to just slow down a little bit and say 'okay what do we have to do to make sure that this is not going to be a problem,'" Dr. Bill Muller, an associate professor of pediatrics at Lurie, said. "And I think that really was disappointing for a lot of people who are hoping to have a vaccine in time for school."
When it comes to the current timeline, Muller said Pfizer was expected to seek an emergency use authorization first, as they’ve been ahead of Moderna by several weeks.
While kids are at lower risk of severe illness or death than older people, more than 5 million children in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began and at least 460 have died, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Cases in children have risen as the delta variant swept through the country.
For elementary school-aged kids, Pfizer tested a much lower dose — a third of the amount that’s in each shot given now. Yet after their second dose, children ages 5 to 11 developed coronavirus-fighting antibody levels just as strong as teenagers and young adults getting the regular-strength shots, Dr. Bill Gruber, a Pfizer senior vice president, told The Associated Press.
The kid dosage also proved safe, with similar or fewer temporary side effects — such as sore arms, fever or achiness — that teens experience, he said.
Pfizer said it studied the lower dose in 2,268 kindergartners and elementary school-aged kids. The FDA required what is called an immune “bridging" study: evidence that the younger children developed antibody levels already proven to be protective in teens and adults. That's what Pfizer reported Monday in a press release, not a scientific publication. The study still is ongoing, and there haven't yet been enough COVID-19 cases to compare rates between the vaccinated and those given a placebo — something that might offer additional evidence.
The study isn’t large enough to detect any extremely rare side effects, such as the heart inflammation that sometimes occurs after the second dose, mostly in young men. The FDA’s Marks said the pediatric studies should be large enough to rule out any higher risk to young children. Pfizer’s Gruber said once the vaccine is authorized for younger children, they’ll be carefully monitored for rare risks just like everyone else.
Moderna is still studying its shots in elementary school-aged children. Pfizer and Moderna are studying even younger tots as well, down to 6-month-olds. Results are expected later in the year.