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Health

Low-dose COVID vaccine is safe and effective for young kids and babies, Pfizer says

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Parents of children under 5 may finally be able to breathe a sigh of relief. That's because a COVID-19 vaccine for kids younger than 5 could soon be available. Pfizer and BioNTech said today that a low-dose version of their vaccine appears to be safe and effective. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now with more. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Ailsa.

CHANG: So I know a lot of parents of babies and toddlers and other young children have been really anxious to get their kids vaccinated. Can you tell me what are the companies saying about the safety of this vaccine for little humans?

STEIN: Yeah. Pfizer and BioNTech say they've finally come up with a version of their vaccine that can safely protect kids younger than 5 against COVID-19. A study involving nearly 1,700 kids shows that three doses of their vaccine at one-tenth the dose adults get looks like it works. It appears to safely stimulate the immune system just enough to protect children as young as 6 months old. In fact, the companies say very preliminary data indicate the vaccine may be 80% effective at preventing babies, toddlers and other little kids from getting sick, even from omicron.

That would be very good news because at the moment, there's no vaccine available for kids younger than 5. And many parents have been feeling quite distraught and even angry about that, especially now that infections are on the rise again and so few people are wearing masks or doing much of anything to keep the virus from spreading.

CHANG: Yeah.

STEIN: I talked about this with Dr. Tina Tan. She's a pediatrician at Northwestern University.

TINA TAN: This is really good news for being able to protect this population against COVID, especially those that attend daycare because daycares are places where COVID can spread, actually, quite rapidly.

STEIN: And even though kids don't tend to get as sick as adults, COVID can still be a real threat to them and to family members if they bring the virus home.

CHANG: Absolutely. And, Rob, this isn't the only vaccine in development right now for babies and toddlers and other young children - right? - that the FDA is considering. Is that...

STEIN: That's right. That's right.

CHANG: OK.

STEIN: Absolutely, yeah, yeah. Moderna says two doses of its vaccine at one-quarter the dose adults get is - works for kids this age, too. Now, Moderna says its vaccine only appears to be about 37 to 51% protective against omicron. But those numbers are really up in the air right now. Pfizer and BioNTech's estimate of 80% is based on just 10 kids who got sick shortly after their third shot. It'll take a lot more kids to really know how well it works and how long it lasts. I talked about this with Dr. Jesse Goodman. He's a former Food and Drug Administration vaccine expert now at Georgetown University.

JESSE GOODMAN: I'm very reluctant to make anything of that 80% figure. It certainly suggests there's protection there, but we don't know after how many weeks this was. And the pattern has been that that protection against mild infection often goes down over a few weeks to a few months.

STEIN: That said, Goodman says the immune response should be sufficient to protect kids against severe disease.

CHANG: That sounds pretty good. So...

STEIN: Yeah.

CHANG: What happens next?

STEIN: So based on today's announcement, the FDA announced it's moving up a meeting of its advisers to the middle of June to consider both the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech pediatric vaccines together. So the agency could finally authorize the vaccine within weeks. But if the FDA goes ahead with both of these vaccines, it could get kind of tricky for parents to decide which one to get. One requires two shots, the other three spaced weeks or months apart. So it could end up being kind of confusing...

CHANG: Right. Yeah.

STEIN: ...You know, getting kids to their doctors for all those shots. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will weigh in and help sort things out. So a vaccine for babies, toddlers and other young kids could finally be available by the beginning of the summer.

CHANG: Hurray.

STEIN: Yeah.

CHANG: That is NPR's Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: Sure thing, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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