NEWS

Will the COVID-19 Vaccine Be Safe for Babies?

woman with baby son

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Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 vaccines are not yet approved for babies.
  • COVID-19 vaccines are now available, safe, effective, and encouraged for those age 5 and up.
  • When the vaccines are approved for babies 6 months old and up, they also will be safe and recommended.
  • By vaccinating adults and older children, we can build herd immunity and protect babies.
  • Vaccine development is happening quickly, but the need for vigilance in following safety protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 still remains high.

Coronavirus vaccines became more widely available in the first half of 2021. Now, they are available for nearly everyone aged 5 and up. Trials for their use in babies aged 6 months and older and in young children under age 5 are ongoing. Approval is likely in the first half of 2022 for this age group, says Amina Ahmed, MD, professor of pediatric infectious diseases and immunology at Atrium Health Levine Children's Hospital.

This is great news. However, many parents have questions and concerns about the safety of these vaccines and if they are right for their child. In fact, a study published in 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.

Here, Dr. Ahmed explains why the vaccine is not quite ready for babies, but that it won’t be long before it is. She also offers reassurance that the technology, efficacy, and safety of these vaccines have been and continue to be rigorously tested. When these vaccines are approved, says Dr. Ahmed, they will be safe and effective for your baby and young child.

Why Current Vaccines Are Not Approved for Babies

Currently, the vaccines for COVID-19 have only been approved for ages 5 and up. Dr. Ahmed explains that typically, with any vaccine testing, adults are tested first. Currently, the use of COVID-19 vaccines in children under the age of 5 down to six months old is being studied to determine the most effective dosing. Safety and efficacy continue to be monitored as well.

“It'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 (from Pfizer and Moderna) have been the most vigorously tested on adults so far. They are not ready for babies and the youngest children yet, simply because researchers are still fine-tuning the best dosing protocols for delivering a robust immune response, says Dr. Ahmed.

One reason for a delay in seeking approval is figuring out the best dose for this age group. "With the Pfizer vaccine, in the initial trials for kids age 2 to 5, using two shots did not mount as good of an immune response, so researchers will now be looking at giving 3 doses," says Dr. Ahmed. "However, there is no safety signal at all," she explains, meaning that this delay is not about any safety issue but rather in creating the most effective immune protection against COVID-19.

When Will the Vaccine Be Ready for Young Children?

Vaccines are still being tested in the youngest children, but the trials are expected to be completed early in 2022, with vaccines becoming available in 2022, says Dr. Ahmed. "I doubt it will be before February, but likely will be in the first half of the year," she predicts. However, it also may take longer, depending on study results.

The Pfizer vaccines rolled out for children aged 12 and up in the spring of 2021, with the 5- to 11-year-old group getting the go-ahead in the fall of 2021. Pfizer began testing in children as young as 6 months old in the summer of 2021. Moderna is also testing their vaccine in young children.

Dr. Ahmed explains that the COVID-19 threat to overall 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 kids...so we are definitely advocating for moving a little bit faster," she says.

Because the need for a COVID vaccine is so urgent, trials are running a little faster than usual, but this does not mean that they are being less rigorously tested. “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,” Dr. Ahmed explains. However, be assured that efficacy and safety continue to be closely monitored.

Is the Short Time Frame Safe?

Dr. 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

So, what scientists are doing is working with a new virus and well-known mRNA vaccine technology to develop a suitable vaccination. Similar rapid work on vaccine development began with the H1N1, SARS, Zika, and Ebola epidemics. The difference between these vaccine developments versus COVID-19 is that the aforementioned epidemics ended prior to vaccine completion.

Although any potential risk of long-term consequences will not be known when vaccines are rolled out, Dr. Ahmed reminds parents that scientists believe these risks to be very low and 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.” The vaccines are safe, she explains.

"Historically, the younger the patient, the better they tolerate vaccines. Remember that millions and millions of people have had these vaccines," says Dr. Ahmed.

Do Kids Even Need the Vaccine?

Yes, children need the vaccines, says Dr. Ahmed. Although children generally are not experiencing as many severe complications of COVID-19 compared with the adult and older adult populations, severe consequences still occasionally occur.

"It’s unpredictable who is going to get severe illness," says Dr. Ahmed. "To protect your own child, I would definitely recommend giving them the vaccine."

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.

Dr. Ahmed explains that currently, there is no obvious way to know 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. Plus, MIS-C patients have experienced significantly higher rates of heart involvement, says Dr. Ahmed, "Any risk of heart issues is much higher with COVID-19 than with the vaccine—and 99% of cases were reversible and recover."

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 due to the new COVID-19 variants, such as Delta and Omicron, as preliminary research shows they have higher transmission rates.

"We are very concerned about Omicron because it is highly transmissible and is definitely infecting children," says Dr. Ahmed. Plus, even if your family members are unlikely to get very sick, there is still reason to get vaccinated, explains the doctor.

"Having to quarantine is very disruptive to a household," she says. Also, getting vaccinated to avoid getting sick and transmission prevents having to miss work and school and really helps society keep functioning as well.

Will Vaccinating Kids Help With Herd Immunity?

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

For COVID-19, Dr. Ahmed explains that the medical community is aiming for at least 65% to 75% or more 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 older people and other vulnerable communities via herd immunity.

For COVID-19, by vaccinating healthy adults and older populations, we may potentially achieve herd immunity while we await vaccine approval for babies and young children. However, vaccine hesitancy in some groups is significantly slowing down this effort—and putting us all at greater risk. So, we'll be protecting our children and other vulnerable populations by vaccinating adults and children 5 and up.

"Twenty to twenty-five percent of the U.S. population is a child under 18, so if we don’t vaccinate enough children we won't get to herd immunity or be able to reduce silent transmission," says Dr. Ahmed. The pediatrician urges all who are eligible to get vaccinated—for their own safety and for the safety of their community at large.

How Long Will Immunity Last?

Researchers do not yet know exactly how long vaccine-related immunity will last, but studies show that it begins to wane after several months. The longevity of immune protection may also vary person-to-person and depend on which vaccine was received, as well as if a person was ever infected with COVID-19.

Vaccine Booster Shots

We now know that vaccines provide approximately six months of protection, and natural immunity from COVID-19 infection lasts around three months. Due to waning immunity, booster shots are now recommended and approved for those 16 and older. So, regular boosters will be required from vast numbers of the population in order for herd immunity to be reached and maintained.

What This Means For You

Vaccines for babies are not yet ready. While the safety and efficacy of COVID vaccines in babies are still being tested, experts are confident they are safe.

By protecting yourself with vaccination, you minimize the risk of getting sick and passing on this illness to the most vulnerable members of society, including your baby.

In addition to vaccination, continue to practice social distancing, wear masks in crowded, indoor settings, wash hands regularly, and stay 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.

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13 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.
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