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U.K. vaccine advisory group recommends against immunizing kids 12 to 15 over risk uncertainty

A woman carrying a baby argues with the police as she takes part in an anti-vaccination protest outside the Science museum on September 3, 2021 in London, England. The anti-vaccination protesters have gathered in London following the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s decision to approve the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for use on children between the ages of 12 and 15. This afternoon it was announced that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) will not recommend the mass vaccination of children in the UK.

Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images

A committee of scientists that advises the British government on immunization has held back on recommending COVID-19 vaccinations for healthy children between the ages of 12 and 15 partly because of uncertainty surrounding the safety of the shot.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said Friday that while the health benefits of inoculating children were marginally greater than the risks, “the margin of benefit is considered too small to support universal vaccination of healthy 12- to 15-year-olds at this time.” However, the committee said the government should consider views from other health experts “on the wider societal and educational impacts” of vaccination.

Adam Finn, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Bristol who is on the JCVI, said there were “significant uncertainties around the safety of the vaccine that have not yet been clarified.” He said there has been evidence of a link between mRNA vaccines – such as the Pfizer-BioNTech shot – and myocarditis, which is a form of heart inflammation.

“This is rare and individuals who experience it usually get better quite quickly,” Dr. Finn told a media briefing on Friday. “The uncertainly relates to the longer-term consequences. Our pediatric cardiology colleagues from North America, as well as in this country, are advising us that there is significant uncertainty around that.” He said JCVI scientists were waiting to see the results of further studies.

Unlike Canada and many European countries, Britain has not vaccinated healthy children under the age of 16. The British government has been eager to launch a vaccination program, especially since most children returned to school last week, but officials had been waiting for the JCVI’s advice. The government said it will now consult with chief medical officers of health in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland before making a final decision. “We will consider the advice, building on the advice from the JCVI, before making a decision shortly,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Friday.

The JCVI has recommended vaccination for children with underlying health issues, such as heart conditions and Type 1 diabetes. But the committee has said that since healthy children rarely become severely ill from COVID-19, the benefits of vaccination were limited.

“For otherwise healthy 12- to 15-year-old children, their risk of severe COVID-19 disease is small and therefore the potential for benefit from [vaccination] is also small,” said Wei Shen Lim, chair of the COVID-19 immunization group at the JCVI.

Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the JCVI, said studies have shown that there are between three and 17 cases of myocarditis in children for every one million doses of vaccine. “That’s a very wide range because the data is uncertain,” he said. “This was a very finely balanced decision but definitely whilst the benefits slightly outweigh the risks, the risks are very uncertain at the moment.”

Dr. Harnden acknowledged that it was unusual for the JCVI to urge the government to consider other views. However, he said the impact of the pandemic on education was important and beyond the scope of the committee. “It’s us as a committee feeling that we don’t have the expertise to assess the educational aspect,” he said.

Dr. Finn said the JCVI has also been concerned about children developing “long COVID” – when coronavirus symptoms appear to last for months or longer. Long COVID “is part of our consideration and we’re keeping an eye on the evidence as it comes through,” he said.

A recent study in Britain estimated that up to one in seven teenagers who catch COVID-19 still had related symptoms three months after becoming ill. Researchers said that was lower than many other estimates, which put the figure as high as 50 per cent, but still concerning given that it would translate into roughly 30,000 teenagers in the U.K. However, they added that it wasn’t clear whether vaccination would prevent long-lasting symptoms.

Dr. Finn also said it was not unusual that Britain had taken a different approach to vaccinating children. “I don’t think anyone should be that surprised that things don’t always come out the same at different times in different countries,” he said. He noted that vaccine rollout programs had varied widely along with research activity. “The idea that somehow everyone would be in lockstep on this is quite misguided.”

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