In December 2020 Penta held its annual Scientific Meeting. Despite the unusual get together due to COVID-19, we shared great science together. Among the experts invited was Timo Vesikari, a vaccine specialist who provided an insightful overview of the current scenario around COVID-19 vaccine development. We asked him to answer some questions around the research on COVID-19 vaccines and the implications they may have on children.
Currently, children seem less affected by COVID-19 or develop a milder form of the disease: will this affect the vaccination strategies? Do they need to be vaccinated? Why?
Children are infected by COVID-19 virus but do not often develop severe disease. Carlo Giaquinto (President of Penta Foundation) showed figures from Veneto Region, that to me are self-explanatory: more than 20.000 cases and 130 hospitalizations. The large number of cases clearly show that children can get the infection and most likely also spread it.
The need to protect children is not so great, although there is a need; but, without vaccination of (most of) children population, the virus cannot be eradicated. If the virus remains circulating in children, it will also find its way to adults who are susceptible, i.e. not vaccinated or not infected. Globally, the virus will remain in circulation.
It might be possible to protect some European countries regionally if high coverage is reached. The coverage will have to include children. I suppose the coverage figure will have to be around 90% of the total population to keep the virus out of a country.
We know that vaccine studies focus on adults and that some studies may include adolescents from 16 years of age. When do you expect investigations into the use of COVID-19 vaccines in children will start?
I am sure the studies will be carried out during 2021. The first and foremost thing is to establish safety in children, because their immune response is different from adults and can be different at different ages, from infancy to adolescence.
What recommendations would you give to those who will be developing a vaccine for children?
I do not think there will be separate vaccines for children. The doses may be adapted. I would prefer to stay away from strong *adjuvants like ASO3, which was associated with narcolepsy following swine flu vaccine Pandemrix. Children have a good immune response and do not need strong adjuvants.
If I could have my choice, I would start with mRNA vaccines with lower dose. Probably the whole virus vaccines like Sinovac’s would be OK for children but they are not likely to be available in Europe.
*An adjuvant is an ingredient used in some vaccines that helps create a stronger immune response in people receiving the vaccine. In other words, adjuvants help vaccines work better.
January 25, 2021
Professor Timo Vesikari, MD, PhD, is the Founder and CEO Nordic Research Network (NRN) Ltd. He has been Director of Vaccine Research Center (VRC) at University of Tampere from 2004 to 2019. His previous positions with the University include Professor of Pediatrics (1981–1987) and Professor of Virology (1991–2012).