The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is advising that children at increased risk of serious COVID-19 disease are offered the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
That includes children aged 12 to 15 with severe neurodisabilities, Down’s syndrome, immunosuppression and multiple or severe learning disabilities.
The JCVI also recommends that children and young people aged 12 to 17 who live with an immunosuppressed person should be offered the vaccine. This is to indirectly protect their immunosuppressed household contacts, who are at higher risk of serious disease from COVID-19 and may not generate a full immune response to vaccination.
Under existing advice, young people aged 16 to 17 with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious COVID-19 should have already been offered vaccination.
The JCVI is not currently advising routine vaccination of children outside of these groups, based on the current evidence.
As evidence shows that COVID-19 rarely causes severe disease in children without underlying health conditions, the JCVI has stated that the minimal health benefits of offering universal COVID-19 vaccination to children do not outweigh the potential risks. Fewer than 30 children have died because of COVID-19 in the UK as of March 2021.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only vaccine that has been authorised for children in the UK, for those aged 12 or older, following a US clinical trial in around 1,000 children aged 12 to 15 that found side effects in this group were generally short lived and mild to moderate.
Real-world data on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines in children is currently limited, but there have been extremely rare reports of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the membrane around the heart) following the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines in millions of younger adults.
Amanda Batten, Chief Executive of disability charity Contact, said: “Today’s announcement by the JCVI and Vaccines Minister will be of huge relief to many families of clinically vulnerable youngsters in the UK. Some are still shielding and are desperate for their child to be vaccinated, so they can get back to school and friends. Since the Pfizer vaccine was found safe for 12-15 year olds by the UK regulator in June, they have felt abandoned and frustrated that the guidance has taken so long. Many families felt fearful as cases have risen and restrictions lifted.
“It’s vital that the roll-out to the identified groups is done as swiftly as possible. The timing of today’s announcement means that these youngsters won’t get two jabs before schools go back in September. And we are concerned there will be some families disappointed because their child doesn’t fall into the categories identified today as able to get the vaccine. They were asked to shield at the advice of government and some are understandably still worried. They need reassurance that their child is no longer at risk of serious illness with data and facts used by the JCVI in drawing up their list.
“Families have campaigned tirelessly for this day over the last seven months, speaking out, writing to the JCVI and Vaccines Minister and we are proud to have worked alongside them.”
Professor Anthony Harnden, Deputy Chair of the JCVI, said: “The primary aim of the vaccination programme has always been to prevent hospitalisations and deaths. Based on the fact that previously well children, if they do get COVID-19, are likely to have a very mild form of the disease, the health benefits of vaccinating them are small.
“The benefits of reducing transmission to the wider population from children are also highly uncertain, especially as vaccine uptake is very high in older people who are at highest risk from serious COVID-19 infection.
“We will keep this advice under review as more safety and effectiveness information becomes available.”