US FDA advisers back Covid-19 vaccines for children as young as 6 months

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was authorised for children ages 5 to 11 in October. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Advisers to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday (June 15) unanimously recommended the agency authorise Covid-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech for millions of the youngest American children.

The committee's recommendation is an important step towards immunising children under the age of five and as young as six months old, who have not yet been eligible for the shots.

The FDA is likely to authorise the shots soon. The United States government is planning for a June 21 start to its under-five vaccination campaign should the vaccines receive FDA authorisation, White House Covid-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha said last week.

Covid-19 is generally more mild in children than adults, but FDA officials told the panel that the number of US Covid-19 deaths so far in small children - roughly 442 under age five - "compared terribly" with the 78 deaths reported during the swine flu pandemic of 2019 to 2010.

"I think we have to be careful that we don't become numb to the number of paediatric deaths because of the overwhelming number of older deaths," FDA official Peter Marks told the panel.

Once the FDA authorises the vaccines for the age group - six months to four years old for Pfizer-BioNTech and six months to five years old for Moderna - the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will make its recommendations on the use of the shots in young children.

A committee of the CDC's external advisers is scheduled to meet on Friday and Saturday.

While many American parents are eager to vaccinate their children, it is unclear how strong the demand will be for the shots.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was authorised for children aged five to 11 in October, but only about 29 per cent of that group is fully vaccinated.

Public health officials and experts say that even though a large portion of small children were infected during the winter surge in cases driven by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, natural immunity wanes over time and vaccinations should help prevent hospitalisation and deaths when cases rise again.

The two vaccines are not interchangeable.

Moderna's vaccine for children under six is a two-dose, 25mcg vaccine, with the shots given about four weeks apart. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for the youngest children is a lower-dose, three-shot regimen given over at least 11 weeks.

Several panellists at the meeting voiced concerns that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was not substantially protective until children received the third shot, noting that parents might believe their children were protected while awaiting that last dose.

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