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Pfizer study finale: COVID-19 vaccine prompts "strong" immune response in children. And ... now what?

In theory, it’s great news. In practice, will it change much? A new study from Pfizer shows that its COVID-19 vaccine produces a “highly effective” response in children between the ages of 5 and 11 years of age.

A few months ago, that would have been considered the last step back toward normality, especially in classrooms around the country. Now, maybe it’s just another signpost in the pandemic’s endless roundabout in the US:

The Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine has been shown to be safe and highly effective in young children aged 5 to 11 years, the companies announced early Monday morning. The news should help ease months of anxiety among parents and teachers about when children, and their close contacts, might be shielded from the coronavirus.

The need is urgent: Children now account for more than one in five new cases, and the highly contagious Delta variant has sent more children into hospitals and intensive care units in the past few weeks than at any other time in the pandemic.

Pfizer and BioNTech plan to apply to the Food and Drug Administration by the end of the month for authorization to use the vaccine in these children. If the regulatory review goes as smoothly as it did for older children and adults, millions of elementary school students could be inoculated before Halloween.

The FDA will have to review the study in detail and draw the same conclusions before approving use of the BioNTech vaccine in children that age. They have been a bit balky lately, surprising everyone on the issue of boosters, but everyone expects the FDA and CDC to back these vaccinations. That’s in part because unvaccinated children have become a slightly higher risk for the Delta variant, although they’re still at much lower risk than adults:

Children have a much lower risk of Covid-19 than adults, even when exposed to the Delta variant. Still, some small number of infected children develop a life-threatening condition called multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C. Still others may have lingering symptoms for months.

Nearly 30,000 children were hospitalized for Covid in August; the least vaccinated states reported the highest rates. At Seattle Children’s hospital, about half of the children who are admitted for Covid are older than 12, according to Dr. Danielle Zerr, a pediatric infectious diseases expert at the hospital.

Children over 12 are already eligible for vaccination, of course, and have been for months. Younger children are less susceptible to COVID-19 than preteens and teens, but that doesn’t mean that they never get it. A vaccine for those ages 5 and up would be very good news for the children, assuming their parents decide to get them vaccinated. If they don’t, however, vaccinations won’t help them, but should offer enough protection for everyone else to get back to normal.

But that’s the rub. A vaccine available for all school-age children should mean no more restrictions in schools, if we followed the pattern before the Delta wave.  Schools can require vaccinations for admittance; they have for decades already in regard to diseases like measles, mumps, and other serious communicable diseases. Children could return to normal education settings, teachers would have no reason to demand distance learning continue, and parents could resume their careers.

That doesn’t account for the zero-risk-tolerance leadership we’ve experienced during the last several months. Rather than dealing with the disease and its seasonality in a rational manner and therefore encouraging cooperation, the hysterics are insisting on imposing onerous restrictions even on the low-risk categories as an exercise of power. Thus far, vaccination means that people still have to mask up and practice social distancing. Natural immunity, while arguable in strength, is completely and irrationally ignored altogether. Breakthrough cases have spooked bureaucrats and health-industry leaders to the point where we’re forcibly masking 2-year-old asthmatics on airplanes despite a near-absolute-zero risk of being a vector for COVID-19. We’ve stopped treating this situation rationally, Karol Markowicz writes, which makes these achievements nearly meaningless:

In what has become a bizarre ritual of over-the-top rule-following zealotry coupled with misplaced and unscientific COVID fear, another child was pulled off an airplane last week for not wearing a mask correctly.

Amanda Pendarvis and her 2-year-old were forced to deplane when the toddler couldn’t keep his mask on. Pendarvis says her son was having an asthma attack at the time.

The video of the child saying “no, no” while his mom attempts to keep the mask on him is heart-wrenching.

It would be painful to do this to children if it were necessary in the name of safety, but it simply is not. …

The World Health Organization does not recommend masking children under age 6. In Europe, some airlines follow this guideline, but many carve their own saner path. KLM and Icelandair require masks at age 10. British Airways and Air France start at 11. No one but airlines inside the United States starts masking at the absurd age of 2 years old.

We are unique in our madness. We’ve lost our minds. And our humanity.

With this in mind, how much do we really expect this hyper-protective status quo to change? Teachers unions will still refuse to come back to in-person work until every child is not just eligible for vaccination but actually vaccinated. Policymakers will still demand everyone wear a mask in public spaces regardless of vaccination status, just as we are seeing now. The same irrational zero-COVID approach will continue to shape our policy choices as the same people will keep pointing out the potential for new Greek-alphabetized variants that may or may not be on the way from somewhere.

The one bit of good news from this announcement will be that vaccinated children will have a much lower chance of getting sick from COVID-19, which is good in itself. Of course, they always had a much lower risk than adults did, but that doesn’t negate the value of a good and effective vaccine. It’s not the fault of Pfizer or these children that the adults in the room refuse to make rational risk-cost analyses, but we can confidently predict that they will continue to do so even after the FDA approves this new vaccine for children under 12.