Q&A: COVID-19 vaccine and youth
Children aged 12 and over are eligible for the COVID 19 vaccine.
Illyria and Eric from McMaster Children’s Hospital’s Youth Advisory Council ask infectious diseases specialist Dr. Martha Fulford about the COVID-19 vaccine.
Eric: How was the vaccine developed so quickly and has it been tested on teens yet?
The technology for the Pfizer vaccine — which is one that’s approved for teenagers — is something called mRNA. It’s actually a technology that already existed and you can look at articles before COVID talking about this as being the new era vaccine. Then COVID happened and it’s sort of the first mass production of it. The technology was there, and what they did was sequential testing. The people developing vaccines were doing almost simultaneous assessment of the vaccine in terms of safety and effectiveness. So it’s not a new technology, it was just ramped up really quickly.
On a side note, it’s probably going to change a lot of how we get vaccines going into the future and it may actually lead to us being able to create very targeted vaccines for things like certain cancers. In a lot of ways, it’s very exciting that this has happened.
In terms of testing on young people, the trial that was done in the United States where Pfizer looked at it in around 1300 teenagers, was really mostly to make sure that that group didn’t have adverse effects and also to make sure they responded. To be perfectly honest, the trial didn’t show us a lot in terms of prevention of severe disease because of course teenagers are very unlikely to get severe disease, but it showed that younger people definitely got a good response to the vaccine.
Illyria: Teens are much less likely to experience any symptoms of COVID so why is it so important that we get vaccinated?
You’re going to find different philosophical answers for this. The more people that are vaccinated, the less likely it is that we’ll have transmission in the community. Canada and the United States so far are the only countries that are really looking at vaccinating teenagers. I think the United Kingdom might. But certainly if we look at what’s happened so far in the places that are ahead of us in terms of how many people are vaccinated — countries like Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom — we don’t have to have teenagers vaccinated for our numbers to come down. But if you’re planning ahead long term, the more people that are vaccinated, the less the virus will be transmitted in the community. Overall, people who are vulnerable, who for whatever reason may not be able to get a vaccine, are less likely to be exposed. So in a sense, younger people are not at risk but it’s a good idea to have as little transmission as we can across the board in the community.
Illyria: What side effects can be expected for teens and how long do they last?
What we’ve seen in teenagers is exactly what we see in adults. After the first dose you probably will have a bit of an achy arm. It’s pretty common to have a headache. Some people feel a little bit flu-like or a little bit unwell for 24 hours. After the second dose, the response is actually much more pronounced and people can feel pretty icky for about 24 hours, maybe 48 hours. And by that you might have a low-grade fever, you might feel sort of achy across your body, the headache might come back – and it goes away.
There’s one exception to this which is quite interesting. If somebody has already had COVID, you can think of that almost as their first dose and then when they get their first shot, that’s like the booster shot. There are some people who have very quite a marked response after the first dose and that’s often because they already have antibodies in their system, so that first dose is like the booster for them.
It actually has shown really good immunity. There have been some very good studies showing that that if you get COVID, you mount a very good immune response and a study actually just got published showing that people who’ve had COVID, even mild COVID, have very good antibodies even 11 months later – that’s of course how long we’ve got had time to study. So we know you get a really good immune response already due to the natural infection, so by giving the vaccine it’s like giving a booster already.
Eric: What activities can you do after getting your first dose or your second dose? Will life get back to normal after we’re all vaccinated?
The reason that we have a lot of these lockdowns or the reason that we sort of slowed everything down was to try to prevent really severe illness in our vulnerable population and make sure our hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. This most recent lockdown with the third wave was because we were seeing a lot of people in our intensive care units. That problem is essentially solved already with the vaccination.
So for young people, your activity should not be restricted based on your vaccination status. It’s sort of a desirable thing to have long-term for the overall good of the community, but we don’t need every teenager be vaccinated in order for restrictions to be lifted. Good examples of where we can see that already, if you look at what’s happening in places like British Columbia, Alberta, certainly most of the United States, things have reopened with just adults being vaccinated. So the most important thing for us is to make sure the vulnerable adults in our community are vaccinated so our hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.
In Ontario, we’re saying we would like a certain percentage of people vaccinated but that’s a total population of people who are eligible to be vaccinated and so it doesn’t necessarily mean every person – and there’s some people who might elect to defer it and there’s some people who can’t be vaccinated for whatever reason. The targets for reopening are going to be tied partly to overall cases, at least in Ontario, as well as overall vaccination. But at the moment there’s no plan to link activities for you guys to reopening.
The vaccines are a game changer for us because they are remarkable how well they prevent severe disease, hospitalization and death in people who are vulnerable. It’s really positive news that we have so many people in Ontario vaccinated.
We hope to see everyone at the vaccination clinic soon!