As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its seventh month in the United States, people around the nation are increasingly looking to a vaccine to return the world to normalcy. Despite initial reports from health experts that it would be 12-18 months before a vaccine would receive regulatory approval, government officials and prominent members of the medical community have indicated that it is likely that at least one vaccine will receive an FDA emergency use authorization before the end of the year. With the breakneck pace of vaccine development, some groups are being overlooked as pharmaceutical companies recruit volunteers for clinical trials. In August, it was reported that the stage 3 clinical trial run by a company developing one of the leading vaccines lacked minority representation from Black, Latinx, and Indigenous participants. Other stage 3 vaccine trials have faced similar concerns about minority representation. While minority underrepresentation in clinical trials is a massive concern, there is one group — with over 75 million people in the United States — that is shockingly underrepresented: children.
It is imperative that children be included in vaccine trials. According to the World Health Organization, “children are a unique population with distinct developmental and physiological differences from adults.” Thus, clinical trials in children are essential for developing age-specific, effective treatments. As of October 2020, only one company has received FDA approval to include children in their trials. Pharmaceutical companies’ choice not to include children in their trials is a problem for a number of reasons, relating not only to health, but also educational and economic factors.
While children are at a lower risk of becoming seriously sick from COVID than adults, COVID still carries a health risk. Hundreds of New York children have been hospitalized from COVID and multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) — a COVID-linked pediatric inflammatory disease—has taken the lives of two NY children. This disease — and COVID in general — disproportionately affects people of color.
As schools around the country reopen and over 50 million children hope to return to in-person classes, there is an enormous risk of spreading the virus among households. Children have proven very capable of contracting and spreading the virus as over 790,000 children — 11% of total U.S. cases — have tested positive since the pandemic began. It is safe to assume that until the virus is under control, students will not be able to return to school as they knew it. Hybrid learning or fully remote learning may continue to be the norm until a vaccine has been developed and widely distributed among children. This is incredibly concerning.
According to an investigation into remote learning, it was hardly a comparable alternative to in-person classes. Students and teachers lacked access to the necessary technology, student absences skyrocketed, and roughly 20 percent of students nationwide did not have access to reliable internet connection. Plus, the shift to online learning has decreased student engagement across the board. While online learning is necessary, it is likely to have at least some adverse effects on student outcomes.
There are also numerous economic benefits to developing and distributing a COVID-19 vaccine for children. Until children can go to school, many parents cannot go to work. Millions of parents who don’t have the option of working from home have been unable to continue working full time at their current jobs. Parents who are working from home also find themselves increasingly distracted and less able to focus on work. The U.S. economy cannot fully recover until students are safely back in classrooms and parents are back at work.
The importance of a COVID-19 vaccine for New York children cannot be overstated. While the pandemic has been emotionally taxing for everyone, it has been especially difficult for children. 4,200 New York children have lost a parent or caregiver to the virus and 325,000 children have been pushed into or near poverty. And while we have been forced to accept the reality of a “New Normal,” life for children in New York is still far from normal. New York has reopened schools in most of its districts, but many students are still only in-person one or two days per week and hundreds of thousands are learning fully remotely. As winter approaches and it gets too cold for outdoor gatherings, New York children will be increasingly deprived of outdoors time and social interaction. For New York children, a vaccine is not just important; it is essential.