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COVID vaccines for young children could be ready by this spring

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

If you're the parent of a child under 5, like I am, and you've been eagerly awaiting a COVID-19 vaccine to become available for the littles, you might be happy to hear this. Pfizer and BioNTech have asked the FDA to authorize their vaccine for kids under age 5. There's hope that the shots will be ready by this spring. And let me just say the mommy text chains have been on fire since this news came out.

Dana Murn in southeast Wisconsin said her mom sent an article about it this morning.

DANA MURN: And I think for the first time since COVID started, I felt hopeful.

KEITH: Kyle Reardon in Alexandria, Va., is thrilled that a vaccine for young children could be around the corner. His daughter is 4 months old.

KYLE REARDON: We are so relieved. I'm just so tired.

KEITH: Reardon and his wife have been extra cautious since they found out they were pregnant.

REARDON: We have been working our tails off to make sure that she is protected and safe. The most painful thing is seeing so many people kind of going about their lives.

KEITH: Pearl Brady, who has a 3-year-old in Queens, says she's felt forgotten both by vaccine-makers and society in general. She's not letting herself get too excited yet.

PEARL BRADY: I really want to believe that this is the beginning of the end, but until I can actually get my child vaccinated, I just can't hope anymore because I can't take another broken heart.

KEITH: Joining us now is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Tam.

KEITH: Rob, hearing those parents - I mean, you can hear the exhaustion, but they're also maybe relieved and excited.

STEIN: Yeah.

KEITH: And I guess the question is, should they be? This is the same two-shot vaccination that Pfizer said didn't produce enough of an immune response in some young children last December. Can you explain this?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah, that's right. Pfizer and BioNTech's plans for the first vaccine for kids younger than 5 suffered a big setback. The company's research found two low doses of their vaccine appeared to generate a strong enough response to protect kids ages 6 months to 23 months, the littlest kids. But it looked like that low dose, two-shot regimen would not protect older kids - those ages 2, 3 and 4. So the companies delayed asking for authorizations until they could try a third dose to see if that would work for those kids.

KEITH: But now there is a change, so what's the plan now?

STEIN: Right, right. So Pfizer and BioNTech today asked the FDA to authorize the low-dose, two-shot vaccine for children as young as 6 months anyway. The idea is this would let kids start getting vaccinated while the companies gather more data about the third dose.

Remember, each dose has to be given three weeks apart, just like their parents' vaccine. So the idea is that if kids can start getting vaccinated soon, like, you know, maybe by the end of this month, they'll be ready to get that third dose, essentially a booster, once the companies hopefully have the data they need to show that that works better.

KEITH: This sounds unusual. Is it?

STEIN: Yeah, it definitely is out of the ordinary. But, you know, this is the only group that doesn't have access to a vaccine yet. And a lot of parents, like those we heard at the beginning, you know, are understandably really impatient to get their kids protected, especially with the highly contagious omicron variant racing across the country. You know, while kids are less likely to get really sick, so many kids are catching omicron, the number of kids getting so sick they need to be hospitalized has been surging, too.

I talked about this with Dr. Yvonne Maldonado. She's a pediatrician at Stanford studying the vaccine in kids.

YVONNE MALDONADO: Yes, their risk is lower than adults, but it's not zero, and we're still hospitalizing kids. We're seeing thousands of kids hospitalized across the country. We've had over a thousand kids die in the U.S. And our hospitals are still full with these kids, and it's really tragic.

STEIN: So Maldonado and most of the other experts I've been in touch with say they think this new plan makes sense.

KEITH: OK, parent of a 3 1/2-year-old here. Are they really saying, go get my kiddo two shots and hope that by the time that's done, there will be evidence that a third dose actually gets the intended result? But, like, what if it doesn't?

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah. So that's essentially what they're saying. The thinking is that two shots could provide at least some protection, especially for those youngest kids, and maybe even for those older kids. And that way, the kids would be ready for that third shot if that looks worthwhile.

But, you know, there are others who aren't so sure. They say it may make sense to authorize the two shots for those youngest kids, since the data indicate that should work, but for those 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds, some of them are saying it's just too premature. Here's Dr. Tina Tan. She's a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University.

TINA TAN: I think we really need to see more data regarding vaccine efficacy in the 2- to 5-year-old children. And the granting of that might backfire and actually increase parental skepticism toward getting their children vaccinated. I think it's definitely going to spook parents.

KEITH: Quickly, Rob, do you know how much demand there is for kids for vaccines?

STEIN: Yeah, you know, it's very mixed. About a third of parents of kids this age say they would definitely get their kids vaccinated right away. Another 12% say they'd only vaccinate them if it was required. And more than a quarter say they definitely won't vaccinate their kids that young because of concerns about, you know, this being so new and there not being enough data and possibly side effects. So there definitely would be an uphill climb to get - convince parents to get their kids vaccinated.

KEITH: Thanks. That is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

STEIN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.