Factually inaccurate: The COVID-19 vaccines stimulate the immune systems of vaccinated individuals to recognize and respond to infections with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, thereby preventing disease. This makes them vaccines, not a treatment.
FULL CLAIM: "If you’re between the ages of 11 and 13[…] your chances of survival are 99.988%. If you’re older in the next group, 14 to 17, your chance of survival is 99.98%%. […] Why are they insisting that children get this experimental treatment?"; "mRNA vaccines are not vaccines but an mRNA treatment"
On 5 May 2021, Canada’s health ministry authorized the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in children aged between 12 to 15. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to do the same soon and the European Medicines Agency began evaluating extending the vaccine to young people (12 to 15 years old) on 3 May 2021. According to press release from Pfizer-BioNTech, preliminary clinical trial data shows that the COVID-19 vaccine elicits a robust antibody response with 100% efficacy in the 12-to-15-years old range.
Studies evaluating the COVID-19 vaccines in children younger than 12 are also underway. On 16 March 2021, Moderna announced that the first participants in a study to evaluate their COVID-19 vaccine in children aged 6 months to less than 12 years had received the first vaccine dose. In late March 2021, it was Pfizer-BioNTech’s turn; the pharmaceutical company began a study to evaluate the safety and immunogenicity of their vaccine in children 6 months to 11 years old.
As COVID-19 vaccines for children become a reality, many parents are excited for their children to get vaccinated. Others are unsure, questioning if vaccinating children is necessary given the low risk of death faced by children infected with SARS-CoV-2. Between 1 March 2020 and 12 December 2020, 178 children died of COVID-19 out of 1.2 million children aged 0 to 17 with positive COVID-19 test results. According to more recent data from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 282 children have died of COVID-19 as of 5 May 2021.
In a 4 May 2021 video recording posted on Facebook, radio host Wendy Bell, claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine was an unnecessary risk for children given their high survivability rate. Specifically, Bell stated that the survivability of COVID-19 is above 99.9% for kids aged 11 to 17 years old, then asked “why are they insisting that children get this experimental treatment?”
Bell is correct that, compared to adults, the risk of COVID-19 mortality in children and teenagers is low in many countries. However, even though this risk is relatively low, this doesn’t necessarily mean that deaths among children are a non-issue, or that all children face an equally low risk of death. For example, an estimated 2,060 children under nine had died in Brazil due to COVID-19 by March 2021. And, even within the same country, there are racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 deaths: Black and Hispanic children are more likely to die of COVID-19 compared to non-Hispanic white children in the U.S.
Though children have a high chance of surviving COVID-19, there is preliminary evidence that lingering effects from the infection remain in some children. A small Italian study followed 129 children 18 and under who tested positive for COVID-19, and found that 42.6% had at least one symptom such as fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headache and respiratory problems over 60 days after the infection.
Therefore, while most children will only experience mild symptoms, COVID-19 is not a zero-risk disease, and in the U.S., COVID-19 led to over 11,000 hospitalizations and 178 deaths among children between March and December 2020. As pediatrician James B. Wood, a professor of clinical pediatrics at Indiana University, summarized in a piece for The Conversation:
“The key to minimizing the risk is to make sure kids eventually get vaccinated, follow social distancing recommendations and wear masks.”
Many medical decisions require making a choice between two risks. When it comes to safe and effective vaccines, the choice is between the benefits of protective immunity and the low risk of an adverse reaction. Vaccines go through extensive testing and a thorough review process before they end up in people’s arms. Public health and regulatory agencies also monitor vaccines after they’ve been authorized, investigating any safety concerns.
Most vaccine side effects, such as pain and redness at the site of injection, are mild and gone within a few days, while a more serious immediate allergic reaction, treated with medication or epinephrine, happens in less than one in one million vaccinated individuals. According to the CDC, “severe, long lasting side effects are extremely rare” and the CDC also provides Vaccine Information Statements on the benefits and risks for each vaccine. Once testing and reviewing has determined that a vaccine for children is safe and effective, the choice is between the risk of encountering a life-threatening disease and the very rare chance of a permanent adverse reaction. The benefits provided by vaccines outweigh the risks.
Expanding the COVID-19 vaccines to 12 to 15-year-olds and even younger children will have other effects, with many scientists believing that vaccinating children would get society closer to controlling the pandemic. Children under 18 make up 22.3 percent of the U.S. population, and over one-fourth of the world population is between 0 and 14 years. Without a vaccine for children, “the disease, even if our kids don’t get super sick with it, is going to be there and continue to circulate routinely,” James Conway, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Scientific American.
By focusing only on the low risk of COVID-19 mortality to children as her reason for why the COVID-19 vaccine is unnecessary for children, Bell ignores the evidence of lingering health impacts on children. Moreover, vaccinating children may keep the virus from circulating in the population, lending protection to at-risk groups.
Additionally, in her broadcast Bell made a number of inaccurate and misleading claims about the COVID-19 vaccines. First, she stated that the mRNA vaccines are not vaccines but an mRNA treatment. mRNA vaccines work by providing cells with instructions on how to produce a protein from SARS-CoV-2, and the immune system, once it encounters this protein, generates a protective immune response against the virus. As such, mRNA vaccines are vaccines because they prevent illness, and not a treatment.
Second, Bell claimed that the COVID-19 vaccines may “scramble” ovaries. Though there have been anecdotal reports of vaccinated women experiencing changes in their menstrual cycle, such as heavier menstrual periods, there is insufficient evidence of a causal link between vaccines and menstrual irregularities.
Last, Bell referred to the COVID-19 vaccines as “experimental”. The COVID-19 vaccines have undergone clinical trials and have met the US FDA’s safety and efficacy requirements, leading the U.S. FDA to grant these vaccines an Emergency Use Authorization. The vaccines haven’t been approved, since this process takes months and as such isn’t suited for an ongoing medical crisis. However, they have been authorized since they are safe and effective and, as such, calling these vaccines “experimental” is misleading.
- 1 – Leidman et al. (2021) COVID-19 Trends Among Persons Aged 0–24 Years — United States, March 1–December 12, 2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
- 2 – Bhopal et al. (2021) Children and young people remain at low risk of COVID-19 mortality. The Lancet.
- 3 – Buonsenso et al. (2021) Preliminary evidence of long COVID in children. Acta Paediatrica.