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What Is the Impact of the New COVID-19 Strain on Kids?

man helping little girl put on her face mask.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new variant of COVID-19, which was first reported in the U.K. and has now been detected in dozens of countries, appears to be much more infectious than previous strains.
  • The new strain doesn't seem to be associated with more serious illness, in either adults or children.
  • However, experts say kids are more susceptible to the new strain, which means it may spread more easily within that group.

A new strain of COVID-19, first identified in the U.K. and reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 14, 2020, has now been detected in at least 33 countries and five U.S. states (Colorado, California, Florida, Georgia, and New York). 

On January 3, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb warned that the new strain, known as B.1.1.7, could account for the majority of new cases in the U.S. by March, reported the New York Post

The new COVID-19 variant appears to be more contagious than the original strains of coronavirus, and experts say kids are more susceptible than before. It may also spread more easily among children. Here's what you need to know to help keep your kids safe.

Why Is the New Strain a Concern?

The B.1.1.7 variant has several mutations, some of which are on the spike protein—the part that enables the virus to bind to receptors in human cells. This is believed to allow the new strain to penetrate cells more easily, leading to infection.

According to an analysis in The BMJ, scientists in the U.K. have estimated that the strain is up to 70% more transmissible, although this number is based on modeling and has not yet been confirmed with lab experiments.

So far, there's no evidence that the new strain causes a more intense illness or leads to a higher fatality rate. However, faster transmission means more cases, which can lead to a higher hospitalization rate.

How Does It Affect Kids?

First, the good news—B.1.1.7 doesn’t seem to be more potent for kids. “It’s not associated with more serious illness or a higher death rate for children,” says Cara Natterson, MD, pediatrician, author, and founder of OOMLA. So there are no suggestions that the new variant is a greater threat to children’s health.

Russell Viner, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in London, told the BBC that "the overwhelming majority of children and young people have no symptoms or very mild illness only…The new variant appears to affect all ages and, as yet, we are not seeing any greater severity amongst children and young people."

But there remains a question mark over whether the B.1.1.7 variant spreads more easily in children, and scientists are working hard to investigate this. If this is indeed the case, this could account for a significant proportion of the increase in transmission, according to members of the U.K. government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats advisory group (NERVTAG).

Cara Natterson, MD

It’s [the new strain] not associated with more serious illness or a higher death rate for children.

— Cara Natterson, MD

Previous Strains of COVID-19 Affected Kids Differently

Earlier strains of the coronavirus didn’t infect children at the same rate as adults, possibly because children have fewer ACE2 receptors—the “doorways” the virus uses to enter the body’s cells. Professor Wendy Barclay, from NERVTAG and Imperial College London, said the mutations to the virus seemed to be making it easier for it to infect kids, per Reuters.

“Children are equally susceptible, perhaps, to this virus as adults, and therefore given their mixing patterns, you would expect to see more children being infected," Barclay said.

“The younger you are, the fewer ACE-2 receptors you have,” Dr. Natterson explains. “Many researchers believe that this explains why kids don’t get as ill with the infection and why they don’t pass it as easily to others, either.” 

Wendy Barclay, PhD

Children are equally susceptible, perhaps, to this virus as adults, and therefore given their mixing patterns, you would expect to see more children being infected.

— Wendy Barclay, PhD

Another theory is that because young kids are exposed to lots of different coronaviruses and because they get sick from those viruses ("think of all of the preschoolers running around with runny noses and juicy coughs," Dr. Natterson says), they also have an opportunity to build immunity to those viruses, including SARS-CoV-2.

“It would make sense that the more recently a person has been exposed to several different coronaviruses, the better that person’s immune system is able to fight off almost any coronavirus,” Dr. Natterson says. “If that turns out to be scientifically true, then it would help explain why the younger you are, the less susceptible you are to COVID-19.” 

The bottom line? There's no evidence that the new strain specifically attacks children. However, Barclay said the B.1.1.7 mutation may be as efficient at infecting children as adults. "If the [new variant of the] virus is having an easier time of finding and entering the cells, then that would put children on a more level playing field, if you like," she said.

What Should Parents Do?

It’s natural for parents to worry about the new COVID-19 strain, but there’s nothing different they need to be doing, Dr. Natterson says. 

“With all coronavirus strains, the safety mitigation steps are the same: stay home as much as possible; wash hands frequently and well; wear masks and keep at least six feet of distance anytime you are with someone who doesn’t live in your home; and try to keep any interactions with others outdoors if possible,” she says. 

What This Means For You

There's still a lot we don't know about the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19. Until we know exactly how it affects children, continue to take all the recommended safety measures to protect your children (and people they come in contact with) from the coronavirus. Mask up, practice good hand hygiene, and stay six feet away from people not in your immediate household at all times.

"As tired as we are of social distancing and masks and staying home, that is the best way to prevent our children from contracting COVID-19,” says Danelle Fisher, MD, FAAP, pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

“These measures do keep people safe, The next step will be to get the vaccine for COVID-19 out to the public and indications for the vaccine lower than age 16 years. This is currently being studied and should hopefully be made available within the next six months.”  

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  1. World Health Organization. SARS-CoV-2 Variants. December 31, 2020.

  2. Mahase E. Covid-19: What have we learnt about the new variant in the UK? The BMJ. 2020 Dec. doi:10.1136/bmj.m4944