The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has recommended the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine Pfizer for children 12 years and over.
It is the only COVID-19 vaccine that ATAGI has approved for Australian children from 12 years of age, with a recommendation that they receive a two-dose schedule.
From 13 September parents will be able to book their children in to receive a COVID-19 vaccine through GP clinics, Commonwealth Vaccination Clinics and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations. The state governments will coordinate access to this age group through their vaccine clinics respectively.
Dr Roger Lord from the Australian Catholic University’s faculty of health sciences said that the nation’s public health concerns required focusing on getting vaccines to those in the population who were unvaccinated. This was an important measure to help control the ongoing spread of the Delta variant outbreak in places like Sydney and Melbourne.
“The recommendation by ATAGI to vaccinate children from 12 years of age against COVID-19 with the Comirnaty (Pfizer) vaccine is therefore important given they have been identified as a reservoir of COVID-19 and to develop herd immunity in the wider population,” Lord said.
ATAGI said that it carefully considered the relevant benefits, risks, uncertainties and evidence to issue its latest advice. Clinical trials of Pfizer in 2,000 children aged 12-15 offered ‘high level evidence’, the group said, to indicate strong immunogenicity and vaccine efficacy against COVID-19 in adolescents.
“One interim report from the Ministry of Health of Israel, where Comirnaty has been used in adolescents aged 16 -18 years since January 2021 reported vaccine effectiveness of 98% against both symptomatic infection (95% CI, 96 to 99%) and hospitalisation (95% CI, 83 to 100%) with no deaths among the vaccinated,” ATAGI’s statement read.
ATAGI made the announcement on Friday, to extend its previous Comirnaty (Pfizer) recommendation for16-year-olds to children aged 12 and up.
From 1 January to 2 August this year, Australian data has recorded that 13.4% of recorded COVID-19 cases were in children aged 10-19. This same age group comprised a total of 18% of cases in NSW in its latest community outbreak of the COVID-19 Delta variant (2 July – 19 August, 2021).
Dr Nusrat Homaira, a paediatrics lecturer at the University of New South Wales, said that children were a key group helping to pass COVID-19 on to others.
“Fortunately children remain at lower risk of developing severe COVID symptoms even with the emergence of delta strain but there has been a significant impact on their lives due to COVID from school closures,” Homaira said.
“This important step by ATAGI of approving Pfizer COVID vaccine for children as young as 12 years age will help children go back to school safely, which plays an important role in the mental, cognitive and social well-being.”
The paediatric respiratory epidemiologist added that as more data on vaccine efficacy on children under 12 years became available, it would be important for Australia to consider extending vaccines to even young children.
“Clinicians and primary care providers can play an important role in improving uptake of COVID vaccine specifically for children who have underlying chronic conditions and need ongoing care,” Homaira said.
Getting school-aged children has been the focus of recent messaging from the NSW government, who are urging parents to protect themselves and their eligible children as soon as possible to accommodate a safe transition back to face-to-face learning in the classroom.
Mater Health Services director of infectious diseases, Paul Griffin, said that ATAGI’s new advice was welcome news. It opened up a crucial step to help prevent the risk of children experiencing ‘long COVID’, he said, with emerging evidence that younger people are vulnerable to these side effects of COVID-19 also.
“Previously children did not seem to contribute very significantly to the transmission of Sars-CoV-2 in that relatively few children were infected, and they did not seem to readily spread the virus, at least seemingly not as much as adults,” Griffin said.
“This appears to have changed in recent times with many examples in this country and abroad where children have contributed very significantly to the case numbers including the recent cluster focused around school children in Brisbane.”
Griffin is the medical director and a principal investigator at the Q-Pharm Nucleus Network, and is running a number of COVID-19 vaccine studies. He also sits on a number of industry advisory boards, including the advisory board for AstraZeneca.
He acknowledged that the benefits of vaccinating children did not only relate to their immediate physical health, but also their mental and social outcomes. As the father of three young children, Griffin said he looked forward to the opportunity to vaccinate his whole family.
“Vaccinating this group […] will also hopefully help to allow this group to return to important activities sooner, safely, for example school and even extracurricular activities, which are so important not only from an education perspective, but from a socialisation and developmental perspective,” Griffin said.
In a statement on Friday, prime minister Scott Morrison said making COVID-19 vaccines available to 12-18-year-olds, provided children and their families with peace of mind.
“Importantly, this decision provides the opportunity for families to come together to visit their GP and get vaccinated,” Morrison said.
It is expected that all Australian children between 12-18 will have access to a vaccine during the course of 2021. The age group between 12 and 15 comprises of approximately 1.2 million children. The pm added that the Moderna vaccine would be made available to this age group also, subject to ATAGI approval.
The ATAGI statement noted that international trials were currently underway to examine the appropriateness of other COVID-19 vaccine candidates for children.
“At present COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca (Vaxzevria) and Spikevax (Moderna) are provisionally registered for use in individuals aged ≥18 years,” ATAGI said.
“Spikevax (Moderna) vaccine is under consideration for provisional registration by TGA for 12 to 17 year olds with a decision anticipated by early September 2021.”