WVU pediatrician urges youth to get vaccinated


From WVU Today

With Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for adolescents ages 12 to 15, one West Virginia University pediatrician assured its safety and efficacy: It underwent the same rigorous testing as for adults. 

Dr. Lisa Costello, assistant professor of pediatrics at the WVU School of Medicine, noted that clinical trials for all age groups – including children as young as six months are underway.

“We want to make sure, from a scientific and public health community, that these vaccines are safe and effective for children,” she said. “Pediatricians have advocated from the beginning of the pandemic that children be included in clinical trials and that all research for COVID-19 vaccines adhere to the highest standards. There have been ongoing studies in children with both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.”

On Monday (May 10), the FDA expanded emergency use authorization for the 12- to 15-year-old age group. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must now recommend the vaccine’s use for the new age group. 

Once vaccines are fully authorized, Gov. Jim Justice said vaccination clinics are expected to open at schools in all 55 counties for the estimated 78,000 West Virginia students now eligible to choose vaccination.

Costello said she anticipated additional vaccine rollouts by age over time. She projected that by early 2022, the vaccine may be authorized for the entire population. Data on how the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine works in children ages 5 to 11 could be available by the end of this summer, according to the developer.

Clinical trial data released by Pfizer in late March showed promise for the 12- to 15-year-old group. The vaccine was reported in clinical trials to be 100% effective in preventing infection across more than 2,000 adolescents, meaning none of the teens in Pfizer’s research trial became infected with the virus. All produced strong antibody responses and experienced no serious side effects. Mild to moderate side effects were consistent with those seen in adults, according to the report.

The science remains the same

Some continue to wonder how officials managed to authorize and distribute vaccines within a year of a pandemic. Yet scientists have been researching vaccines for related coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, for several years.

Costello noted that the COVID-19 vaccine development process has been the fastest seen to date because the entire medical, scientific and public health communities building upon prior research technology mobilized like never before to end this pandemic.

With SARS-CoV-2, scientists didn’t rely on whole virus cells to make the vaccine. Instead they used a snippet of the virus’ messenger RNA, the instructions cells follow to build proteins.

Because the messenger RNA is unable to integrate with our DNA, there’s no need to worry about altering genetic makeup. And it disappears after only a few days, which means it won’t linger in cells after fulfilling its purpose.

Protecting children

Minors must get permission from their parents or guardians to be vaccinated in West Virginia, which may be a challenge for those questioning vaccination.

For the better part of a year, Costello has split her time between her home base in Morgantown and Charleston, where she has played a role in the state’s pandemic response with the Joint Information Center, which is part of the West Virginia Joint Interagency Task Force for COVID-19 Vaccines.

One of the main goals has been to communicate prompt and accurate information to the public. With disinformation and unproven theories surrounding the virus and the vaccine floating on social media and by word-of-mouth, it can be tough to break through the noise.

“Parents and caregivers want facts so that they can make an informed decision for themselves and their children,” Costello said. “The vaccine is safe and it’s important for them to choose to vaccinate. It’s an important role to play in not just protecting themselves, but those around them.”

Costello also said it’s important for parents to recognize that, despite the narrative that COVID-19 mainly affects the elderly and those with preexisting conditions, serious complications can occur in children, too.

“Children have gotten seriously ill with COVID-19 and we still need to practice all of the other safety measures like wearing a mask and washing our hands,” Costello said. “There have been studies on the new variants showing that they’re more transmissible among children, and we’ve seen higher outbreaks in school settings.

“For the longest time, people thought children were not severely impacted, but I’ve cared for children admitted to the hospital with COVID-19. This is a serious disease for children, as well, and that’s why it’s important that they be protected. The safest way to do that will be through vaccination.”

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