Will the COVID-19 Vaccine Be Safe for Babies?

woman with baby son

10000 Hours/DigitalVision/Getty

Key Takeaways

  • The current front-runner vaccines are not yet ready for babies.
  • By vaccinating adults, we can build herd immunity and protect babies.
  • Vaccine development is happening quickly, but the need for vigilance in following safety protocols still remains high.

As coronavirus vaccines become more widely available in early 2021, the choice to vaccinate children falls on the shoulders of parents.

A survey published in the November 2020 issue of the journal Vaccine revealed that approximately half of all parents surveyed were hesitant to vaccinate their children against COVID-19 because the vaccine is so new and the potential side effects are not yet known.

Amina Ahmed, MD, professor of pediatric infectious diseases and immunology at Atrium Health Levine Children's Hospital, helps to explain why the vaccine is not quite ready for babies, but that it won’t be long before it is.

Why Current Vaccines Are Not Approved for Children

Currently, the vaccines for COVID-19 have only been put through clinical trials with adults. Ahmed explains that typically, with any vaccine testing, adults are tested first.

“That's pretty routine for vaccine studies to start out in the adult population and then move down sort of in a graded fashion to younger and younger children," she says. "That's true of any research really involving children because they're considered a vulnerable population.”

The current front-running COVID-19 vaccines have mostly been tested on adults so far, and this is why they are not ready for children yet. But that is not to say that they won’t ever be.

When Will the Vaccine Be Ready for Children?

Clinical trials are being prepared for children aged 12 to 17 currently. Pfizer began testing in children as young as 12 in October 2020, and Moderna began testing in December 2020. Once safety and efficacy are proven in these trials, the next step could go in one of two directions.

Clinical trials may begin in younger children aged 2 to 12 years, and when safety and efficacy is proven in this group, clinical trials may begin in infants. Ahmed said this graded testing is common in vaccine trials.

Alternatively, if enough safety data can be proven through the trials in teens, vaccine doses may be adjusted, and the vaccine rolled out in younger children without the need for further testing in younger age groups.

Amina Ahmed, MD

We really want to get [the vaccine] delivered to kids... so we are definitely advocating for moving a little bit faster on that.

— Amina Ahmed, MD

Ahmed explains that the threat to population health gives vaccine development a sense of urgency. “The pediatric infectious disease community and the pediatric community has voiced concern...that we really want to get [the vaccine] delivered to we are definitely advocating for moving a little bit faster on that, especially if the safety data [is] already there in adults," she says.

Because the need for a COVID vaccine is so urgent, trials are running a little faster than usual. Explains Ahmed, “Normally with vaccine studies, you follow people out for months or years. And this time we basically followed them out for two months so that we could go ahead and get the vaccine out there.”

Clinical trials in ages 12 to 17 years are due to be complete by 2022. How far away a COVID vaccine is for children will depend on which direction clinical trials need to go and the data produced from these trials.

Is the Short Time Frame Safe?

Ahmed reassures parents that although the disease is new, the technology for developing vaccines is not. “I do want to assure people that the technology has been around for a couple of decades, three decades, but it has not been available as a commercial vaccine.”

Amina Ahmed, MD

I do want to assure people that the technology has been around for decades.

— Amina Ahmed, MD

The technology for creating vaccines, particularly the front-running mRNA vaccines, has been available for 30 years. So what scientists are doing is working with a new virus and well-known technology to develop a suitable vaccination.

Similar rapid work on vaccine development began with the H1N1, SARS, Zika, and Ebola epidemics. The difference with these vaccine developments versus COVID-19 is that the aforementioned epidemics ended prior to vaccine completion.

Although long-term consequences will not be known when vaccines are rolled out, Ahmed reminds parents that we must weigh the risks and benefits of the current situation.

“I don't have a good answer to the long-term consequences. We won't know that for a while, but everyone is being highly vigilant," she says. "Obviously the warp speed is one thing, but the vigilance is also magnified.”

Do Kids Even Need the Vaccine With a Low Risk of Severe Illness?

Although children generally are not experiencing as many severe complications of COVID-19 compared with the adult and elderly populations, severe consequences still occur.

Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) is a rare complication of COVID-19 in children. Although rare, it can be serious, and pediatricians would like to see the vaccine available for children to help prevent such complications.

Ahmed explains that currently, there are no obvious predictors that indicate which children will develop MIS-C. “There's no way to predict who gets it," she says. "There's no immunocompromised condition that defines that group. There's no specific trigger. There's no specific timeline. It's somewhere between two to three weeks after you get infected.”

Numbers are higher in the Black and Hispanic communities; however, COVID-19 appears to be higher in these communities as a whole.

Because we do not know which children will be affected severely, it is important to provide protection to all children as soon as possible through vaccination. Plus, kids may be more susceptible than before to the new COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7, since preliminary research suggests they have transmission rates similar to those found in adults.

Will Vaccinating Kids Help With Herd Immunity?

Herd immunity means that if a certain percentage of the population is vaccinated, then it helps the whole community avoid the illness. Different percentages of the population require vaccination depending on the individual pathogen and how easily it is transmitted.

For COVID-19, Ahmed explains that the medical community is aiming for 65% to 75% of the population to have antibodies against the disease to hopefully achieve herd immunity. Antibodies to the disease can come through vaccination or natural immunity.

Of course, as scientific understanding of COVID-19 continues to evolve, this estimated percentage may also change. In many cases, we can vaccinate children and healthy adults to protect the elderly and other vulnerable communities via herd immunity.

For COVID-19, by vaccinating healthy adults and the elderly, we may potentially achieve herd immunity while we await safety data to become available on vaccination in children. Thus, we'll be protecting our children by vaccinating adults.

However, this should be considered with caution, because researchers do not yet know how long vaccine-related immunity will last.

Due to rapid testing, we know vaccines provide at least two months’ worth of protection and natural immunity for three months. It is not yet known if a booster shot will be required, and if so, at what point. Therefore, it cannot yet be relied upon for the adults to take the social responsibility of herd immunity.

What This Means For You

Vaccines for babies are not yet ready. There is no way just yet to know about the safety of COVID vaccines in babies. However, by protecting yourself with vaccination, you minimize the risk of getting sick and passing on this illness to the most vulnerable members of society.

Until vaccination is available, continue to practice social distancing, thorough hand washing, and staying at home if you are unwell.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

Was this page helpful?
5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Goldman RD, Yan TD, Seiler M, et al. Caregiver willingness to vaccinate their children against COVID-19: Cross sectional surveyVaccine. 2020;38(48):7668-7673. doi:10.1016/j.vaccine.2020.09.084

  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine. A study to evaluate the safety, reactogenicity, and effectiveness of mRNA-1273 vaccine in adolescents 12 to <18 years old to prevent COVID-19 (TeenCove). Updated February 1, 2021.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For parents: Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) associated with COVID-19. Updated May 20, 2020.

  4. Walker AS, Vihta K-D, Gethings O, et al. Increased infections, but not viral burden, with a new SARS-CoV-2 variant. medRxiv. 2021. doi:10.1101/2021.01.13.21249721

  5. Opel DJ, Diekema DS, Ross LF. Should we mandate a COVID-19 vaccine for children? JAMA Pediatr. 2021;175(2):125. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.3019

Additional Reading