U.S. regulators just approved the first COVID-19 vaccines for kids, and a decision on vaccines for Canada’s youngest population could land in the coming weeks, according to the country’s top doctors.
It’s a decision Canadian pediatricians are keeping a close eye on, as experts say the move could help mitigate a fall wave of the virus that more than 80 per cent of people in the country are vaccinated against.
“This is really the final frontier in the battle against COVID that we can offer protection to all ages of the population,” said Dr. Fatima Kakkar, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the CHU Sainte-Justine Hospital in Montreal.
“As with all COVID-19 submissions, Health Canada is expediting this review,” the agency told Global News on Thursday.
A decision for Moderna could come “over the new few weeks,” said Dr. Howard Njoo, deputy chief public health officer, during a news conference on Friday.
A spokesperson for Pfizer Canada said the drugmaker is in ongoing discussions with Health Canada about its vaccine in the under-five age category.
“We are progressing well in our preparation for submission,” Christina Antoniou said in an emailed statement Thursday. She did not comment on when that might happen.
Meanwhile, the United States could start vaccinating infants and toddlers as early as next week after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the green light to COVID-19 shots for kids under five on Friday.
While one final recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on how to use the vaccines is needed, the U.S. will be the first country to roll out the shots for this age group.
On Wednesday, advisers to the FDA unanimously recommended the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna for children younger than five.
Getting the shots in the arms of young children in the summer months would be ideal before they return to daycare, kindergarten and pre-school in September, experts say.
“I definitely think if the under-fives are vaccinated, it’s going to mitigate a potential fall wave,” said Kakkar.
The vaccine will not only protect the children but vulnerable family members at home, including older grandparents and pregnant mothers, said Dr. Anna Banerji, pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto.
“I think if you can get the kids vaccinated now and protected now so that when they go back to school or other siblings that are going back to school, that there’s some protection,” she told Global News.
What are the risks for unvaccinated kids?
In Canada, more than 135,000 children between 0-4 years have been infected with COVID-19 and at least 260,000 cases in the 5-11 age bracket reported, according to figures shared by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) with Global News Thursday.
A sixth wave in the spring driven by the highly-transmissible Omicron variant affected a “significant proportion of children” in the country, said Dr. Jesse Papenburg, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and medical microbiologist at the Montreal Children’s Hospital.
“Some studies have estimated about one-third of children were infected with Omicron if not even more so,” he said.
Children tend to get mild COVID-19 infections, but some kids can get “very sick,” said Banerji.
As of June 16, 21 children under the age of five with COVID-19 have died in Canada, according to PHAC. In the 5-11 age bracket, 12 deaths have been reported.
Children with chronic conditions are at high risk of severe disease that can land them in hospitals and ICUs, said Kakkar.
Once approved, COVID-19 vaccines for these children are “highly recommended,” she said.
COVID-19 vaccine uptake and hesitancy
Canada began rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to children aged 5-11 in November 2021.
Since then, vaccination rates among that group have remained low – with less than 42 per cent having received two doses, according to the latest national data.
Because of a lesser burden of COVID-19 disease for younger children and parents either against vaccinating their little ones or sitting on the fence, doctors are also anticipating a low uptake for the under-five population.
“I would be surprised to see uptake higher than 50 per cent, at least initially with this age group,” said Papenburg.
And convincing all Canadian parents will be a challenge, said Kakkar.
Pfizer’s vaccine for kids younger than five is one-tenth of the adult dose. Three shots are needed: the first two given three weeks apart and the last at least two months later.
Moderna’s is two shots, each a quarter of its adult dose, given about four weeks apart for kids under six.
Based on the clinical trials for the under-fives and real-world data from the 5-11 age group vaccination program, Papenburg said there are encouraging signs.
“I think that the data are actually quite reassuring in terms of the vaccine working well, demonstrating that it can produce antibody levels that are similar to what is seen in young adults, as well as a safety profile that really is quite consistent with other vaccines that are given in that age group,” he said.
— with files from the Associated Press