By Lauran Neergaard and Mike Stobbe | Associated Press
The United States urges all 12-year-olds and older to receive a COVID-19 booster as soon as they are eligible, to help combat the hugely contagious omicron mutant tearing through the country.
Boosters were already encouraged for all Americans 16 and older, but on Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved an extra Pfizer shot for younger teens – ages 12 to 15 – and bolstered its recommendation that 16- and 17-year-olds get it, also.
“It is vital that we protect our children and teens from COVID-19 infection and the complications of serious illness,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director, in a statement Wednesday night.
This booster dose will provide optimized protection against COVID-19 and the Omicron variant. I urge all parents to keep their children up to date with the CDC’s COVID-19 vaccine recommendations, ”she said.
Vaccines still offer strong protection against serious illness from any form of COVID-19, including omicron – what experts say is their main benefit. But the latest mutant can slip past a layer of vaccine protection to cause milder infections. Studies show that a booster dose at least temporarily increases antiviral antibodies to levels that provide the best chance of avoiding symptomatic infection, even from omicron.
Earlier Wednesday, the CDC’s independent scientific advisers battled over whether a booster should be an option for younger teens who tend not to get as sick from COVID-19 as adults, or more highly recommended.
Giving teens a booster for a temporary leap in protection against infections is like playing a mole, warned CDC adviser Dr. Sarah Long from Drexel University. But she said the extra shot was worth it to help push the omicron mutant back and protect children from missing school and other problems that come with even a very mild case of COVID-19.
More importantly, if a child with a mild infection spreads it to a more vulnerable parent or grandparent who then dies, the impact is “absolutely devastating,” said panelist Dr. Camille Kotton of Massachusetts General Hospital.
“Let’s knock this one down,” said Dr. Jamie Loehr from Cayuga Family Medicine in Ithaca, New York.
The vaccine made by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech is the only option for American children of all ages. The CDC says about 13.5 million children ages 12 to 17 – just over half of this age group – have received two Pfizer shots. Boosters were opened to 16- and 17-year-olds last month.
Wednesday’s decision means about 5 million of the younger teens who got their last shot in the spring are eligible for a booster right away. New U.S. guidelines say anyone who has received two Pfizer vaccinations and is eligible for a booster can get it five months after their last shot, instead of the six months previously recommended.
But a committee member, Dr. Helen Keipp Talbot from Vanderbilt University, worried that such a strong recommendation to teenage boosters would distract from getting shots in the arms of children who have not been vaccinated at all.
Counselors saw U.S. data make it clear that symptomatic COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are between seven and 11 times higher in unvaccinated adolescents than vaccinated ones.
While children tend to suffer from less severe COVID-19 disease than adults, the pediatric hospital rises during the omicron wave – the vast majority of them are unvaccinated.
During the public comment section of Wednesday’s meeting, Dr. Julie Boom of Texas Children’s Hospital that a booster recommendation for younger teens “can not come fast enough.”
The most important safety issue for adolescents is a rare side effect called myocarditis, a type of heart infection most commonly seen in younger men and teenage boys who receive either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. The vast majority of cases are mild – far milder than the heart inflammation COVID-19 can cause – and they appear to peak in older teens, ages 16 and 17.
The FDA decided that a booster dose was as safe for the younger teens as the older ones, mainly based on data from 6,300 12- to 15-year-olds in Israel who received a Pfizer booster five months after their second dose. Israeli officials said Wednesday they have seen two cases of mild myocarditis in this age group after giving more boosters, 40,000.
Earlier this week, FDA vaccine chief Dr. Peter Marks that the side effect occurs in about 1 in 10,000 men and boys aged 16 to 30 years after their second shot. But he said a third dose seems less risky, by about a third, probably because more time has passed before the booster than between the first two shots.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.