When will young children be eligible for the COVID vaccine? An expert weighs in

The makers of the leading COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. all said Wednesday they have new data showing that an extra shot of their vaccine can boost protection significantly. After Pfizer, the remaining could receive full FDA approval as early as next month. But as officials prepare for adult boosters, plans to vaccinate kids of all ages with their first shot are lagging. William Brangham explores.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, the makers of the leading vaccines in the U.S. all said today they have new data showing that an extra shot can boost protection significantly. They also announced plans to ask the FDA to approve their boosters. It could happen as early as next month.

    But even as the Biden administration is preparing for those boosters, the plans to vaccinate kids of all ages with their first shots are lagging.

    William Brangham explores those concerns.

  • William Brangham:

    Amna, just 32 percent of kids from 12 to 15 have been fully vaccinated.

    That compares with 52 percent of the overall U.S. population. While the efforts to vaccinate those kids began later than adults, a number of public health experts say those numbers are lower than expected.

    And for children who are 11 and younger, no vaccine has not yet been approved. The timeline for those approvals have been sliding back this summer.

    For more on this, we turn again to Dr. Peter Hotez. He's the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and the co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center For Vaccine Development.

    Dr. Hotez, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    As I mentioned, only a third of kids between 12 and 15 have been vaccinated thus far. Does that worry you? Is that troubling? What is your sense about that?

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    Well, here is why it really worries me, because that number nationally does — only tells a part of the story, because, in fact, those numbers are far lower down here in the South.

    So, if you look at, for instance, the 12-to-17-year-olds, the numbers are about a third that of the Northeast. And so, while in states like Vermont and Massachusetts, New England states, Mid-Atlantic states, you're doing pretty well in terms of vaccinating most of the adults and the adolescents, down here in the South, essentially, adolescents are completely unvaccinated for all practical purposes, and young adults.

    And that's why you're seeing, as Delta is raging through the South, so many young people, including kids, now get hospitalized. And so figuring out how to correct those regional differences is going to be really important.

  • William Brangham:

    What is your sense about that? Do you have a good lever that we can pull to help get those numbers up?

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    Well, I think we need — need to understand it better and some of the social science behind it.

    But, so far, a lot of it looks like defiance, defiance among conservative groups, especially among the young adults, who feel either it's unnecessary or that these are being used for political gain somehow, because of the vast disinformation campaign.

    And I think it's probably a lot of young parents as well thinking the same thing for their adolescent kids, that they don't need it, or that the vaccines are somehow unsafe. And they're in this disinformation bubble.

    So I think that's really critically important in terms of correcting this, because the — what we're seeing now in the number of pediatric hospitalizations, even pediatric ICU admissions, is unprecedented now in this phase of the pandemic.

  • William Brangham:

    So, moving to a slightly younger generation of kids, we know there's a lot of anxious parents out there who are wondering when their 5-to-11-year-old kids might get an approval for a vaccine.

    When you look at how the FDA is doing this process — and I know we're not all privy to the inner workings of that — do you feel like they're striking the right balance between caution and the urgency of this pandemic?

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    I think so, because the stakes in some ways are higher for the little kids.

    If the FDA gets it wrong, it not only has a chilling effect on our COVID vaccination program, but it could potentially derail all of our childhood immunization efforts for things like measles, mumps, rubella, and all the other vaccines that we give to infants and young children.

    So, the bar is always a little bit higher for young children to begin with. And I think the FDA is trying to thread that needle behind the urgency to prevent pediatric hospitalizations from COVID-19, and yet making certain that they have got an adequately powered study in terms of number of kids and length of protection to look for any type of safety signal.

  • William Brangham:

    I want to ask you this question about boosters.

    And we have now heard the heads of all the vaccine manufacturers say, our boosters do provide good protection. The administration, the CDC, the FDA all seem to be going forward with a booster campaign.

    Do you believe the evidence is there that that is the right move?

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    Well, there's certainly the evidence there that we are seeing declines in protection against virus infection. So, it's gone down from over 90 percent to 40 to 50 percent for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

    And then the question, is that truly waning immunity or is that declines in efficacy vs. the Delta variant? So, I think that's something that we need to sort out.

    The other big question is, we don't have the data yet to look at breakthrough hospitalizations. And that's going to be important. We're hearing anecdotally from colleagues that up to 20 percent of hospitalized patients are now vaccinated. Others say it's much less.

    We really need that data fully presented. Then the question is going to be, do you roll out a third immunization on the premise that the decline in protection against infection is just the tip of the spear and hospitalizations will inevitably follow? Or do you wait for those breakthrough hospitalizations?

    And that's the kind of discussion that's going on in the scientific community.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Peter Hotez, Baylor College of Medicine, always good to see you. Thank you.

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    Thank you so much.

Listen to this Segment