Children across the United States received their first Covid-19 vaccine doses this week, days after the federal government authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech shot for 5-to-11-year-olds.
By Wednesday, according to the White House, around 900,000 children had received their first dose, with hundreds of thousands more scheduled to receive shots in the coming days.
Vaccines have been available to teenagers aged 16 and up since April, and to adolescents aged 12 to 15 since May. The vaccine rollout for smaller children comes amid an ongoing campaign to offer booster doses to vulnerable-but-vaccinated adults, and as Pfizer calls on regulators to authorize boosters for even more Americans. The result is a stark contrast. U.S. regulators are increasingly expanding vaccination for people at the lowest risk for severe Covid-19 infection — young children and vaccinated adults — even while millions of Americans choose to forego the safe, effective vaccines, and many poor countries remain largely unvaccinated due to a global supply shortage.
Pfizer began trials for children under 12 in March 2021. According to documents Pfizer provided to the Food and Drug Administration’s independent vaccine review committee last month, children in the 5-to-11-year-old group receiving the shot experienced a strong immune response, suggesting it would protect them against the virus. They also experienced no serious adverse events related to the vaccine. (The drugmaker did report three serious medical events completely unrelated to the vaccine, including a trial participant who swallowed a penny.)
Children typically contract only mild or asymptomatic cases of Covid-19. With lingering concerns about extremely rare side effects from the vaccine, some experts have questioned whether vaccination for healthy kids is warranted. During the FDA expert panel meeting late last month, some members indicated that they would prefer to recommend the vaccine only for kids with underlying health conditions — an option the FDA declined to offer the panel. In the end, 17 of the panel’s 18 members voted to grant full emergency authorization to the jab; one abstained.
Whether most parents — including vaccinated parents — will rush to get the shot for their kids is unclear. Last month, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 219 parents with kids aged 5 to 11 found that just 27 percent were immediately ready to vaccinate their kids against Covid-19. Another third or so said they were open to it, but wanted to wait to see how the vaccine performed.
For many parents, though, the shot offered a sense of relief 20 months into to a pandemic that has killed more than 755,000 Americans — including at least 94 children aged 5 to 11. “I didn’t realize how much stress I was carrying around,” Krishna Mudumbi, a scientist and father, told NBC News; his kids, aged 7 and 8, received their first shots on Saturday.
Also in the News:
• Two reports released earlier in the week, in the midst of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), warn that plans under discussion this week to reduce industrial emissions would likely not be enough to reverse accelerating havoc from global climate change. One of the reports is from the U.N. itself, an addendum to the Emissions Gap 2021 report released last month. The study found that even the array of proposals that has been under review at COP26 is inadequate, concluding that if deeper cuts to coal and gas emissions are not made soon, the planet could warm more than 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. A study from an advocacy group, Climate Action Tracker, reached a similar conclusion. The CAT analysis, in fact, concluded that developed countries would need to zero out coal emissions by 2030 to make the needed reductions. A new draft agreement for COP26 published early Friday. While the text, according to The Washington Post, appears to be largely the same as a previous version released on Wednesday, it contains some weakened language on the phasing out of fossil fuels. While mention of coal, oil, and gas in the final agreement would mark a first in the conference’s 26-year run, activists and some scientists are doubtful that existing political will is equal to the moment. In an interview with The Washington Post for a story published on Tuesday, Joeri Rogelj, a lead author of the new report, was blunt: “We shouldn’t be blinded by long-term promises.” (The Washington Post)
• NASA’s ambitious plan to return humans to the moon will have to wait an extra year, officials announced this week. The mission’s original 2024 target, set by the Trump administration, had already been deemed unrealistic by many experts. Now NASA head Bill Nelson has confirmed that the landing will happen no sooner than 2025, citing a legal battle with the space exploration company Blue Origin as one key reason for the delay. The company, owned by Jeff Bezos, alleged that NASA used a flawed process when it selected rival SpaceX to build the lander for the moon mission. Nelson said that litigation stalled the project, dubbed Artemis, for nearly seven months. But the proposed mission has also been plagued by technical setbacks, including delays developing the capsule that will fly astronauts into orbit and designing the spacesuits those astronauts will wear when they set foot on the lunar ground. Artemis aims, among other things, to put the first woman and person of color on the lunar surface. Under the new timeline, which is still considered optimistic, NASA would fly astronauts around the moon and back in 2024 before attempting a landing mission the following year. (NPR)
• In the latest development in the race for a pill to treat Covid-19, Pfizer announced that its experimental antiviral significantly reduces the rate of death and hospitalization in high-risk adults. The results, which are preliminary and have not yet been peer reviewed, are based on a study of 775 patients, all of whom were unvaccinated and had underlying health conditions. According to The AP, those who took the Pfizer pill along with another antiviral treatment “had an 89 percent reduction in their combined rate of hospitalization or death after a month, compared to patients taking a dummy pill.” The rate of side effects, the company said, was similar among the treatment and comparison groups. With these results in hand, Pfizer now plans to ask regulators to authorize use of its pill. A Covid-19 antiviral from drugmaker Merck has already been given the green light in the United Kingdom and is currently under review by the FDA. Results released by Merck in September suggest that its pill cut rates of hospitalization and death in half. But as John Mellors, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh, told The AP: “It’s too early to say who won the hundred meter dash. There’s a big difference between 50 percent and 90 percent, but we need to make sure the populations were comparable.” (The Associated Press)
• Although Antarctica typically evokes wind-blown snow without a plant in sight, at one point in the continent’s long history it was covered with forests and fire. According to a recent paper in the journal Polar Research, around 75 million years ago Antarctica was prone to vast fires, which paleontologists call “paleofires.” The authors of the paper found evidence of the fires in 2015 and 2016 on James Ross Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula’s northeastern coast, when they found ancient charcoal in the island’s sediment. Under a powerful microscope, they discovered that chunks of charcoal had patterns that resembled the cellular structure of plants. Scientists had previously focused their efforts on paleofires in the Northern hemisphere and, in particular, North America. The new paper helps show that such fires were also widespread in other parts of the world. Next, researchers hope to understand what caused the fires, particularly because the period in which they happened saw mass extinctions and dramatic changes in climate. As Cathy Whitlock, director of the Paleoecology Lab at Montana State University, who was not involved with the study, told The New York Times: “The more we know about the past and the linkages between the ecosystem and climate, the better prepared we are for the future.” (The New York Times)
• And finally: Two major academic publishers are retracting hundreds of articles after reports that scammers, posing as scientists, had published low-quality or unintelligible content in special issues of established journals. Elsevier is retracting 165 articles and plans to withdraw more. Springer Nature is pulling 62 articles. According to Nature — which is part of Springer Nature — the scammers had taken advantage of special issues of journals, which are often guest edited by outside researchers. This is not the first instance of fraudulent papers finding their way into reputable journals, although it seems that their frequency has increased in the recent years. In some cases, scammers have fabricated email addresses and identities in order to be appointed guest editors, then filled the special issues with papers of their choosing. The motivation for scammers to publish these papers remains a mystery to many, including Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch. “I do think that the journals are waking up to it, actually looking for it and having systems in place,” he told Nature. Both Elsevier and Springer Nature are now looking for ways to strengthen their editorial systems by reinforcing them with sophisticated technology that can flag suspect behavior. (Nature)
“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Sudhi Oberoi, Ashley Smart, and Jane Roberts contributed to this roundup.