Coronavirus vaccines for healthy children aged between 12 and 15 are not being recommended by the UK’s vaccine advisory body – but the country’s four chief medical officers are to review the matter further before a final decision is made.
The assessment provided by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is that the COVID jab should not be recommended to those in this age group on health grounds alone, but the body has advised the government to look at “wider issues” including the impact of the virus on schooling.
The UK’s four chief medical officers will provide further advice on the vaccination of young people in this age group following the assessment provided by the JCVI on Friday, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
The chief medical officers will convene experts and senior leaders in clinical and public health to consider the issue and will then present their advice to ministers on whether a universal programme of vaccinating healthy 12 to 15-year-olds should be taken forward, the department added.
The independent medicines regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), has approved the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for those aged 12 and over after they met strict standards of safety and effectiveness.
The JCVI has announced it is widening the limited rollout to the most at-risk children in this age bracket who have underlying health conditions – including chronic major heart, lung, kidney, liver and neurological conditions.
But coronavirus presents a very low risk for healthy children, and on Friday, the JCVI said it has determined the benefit of vaccinating them is only marginal in terms of their health.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the government will “consider the advice from the chief medical officers, building on the advice from the JCVI, before making a decision shortly”.
This is expected to take several days.
The announcement came as one member of the JCVI, Professor Jeremy Brown, speaking in a personal capacity, told Sky News the advisory body are “still evaluating the data” surrounding the vaccines.
“At the moment we are still evaluating the data and there isn’t any clear evidence that the vaccines that were given in this country so far have faded in their efficacy of preventing severe infection and hospitalisation – which is really the most important thing the vaccines are designed to prevent,” he said.
“So, there isn’t a huge pressure yet for us to get the vaccines going very soon. So we do have time to make that decision in a carefully considered way and get the vaccine booster jabs going later this year.”
Meanwhile, in a statement following the JCVI’s report, Mr Javid said he is grateful for the group’s expert advice.
“People aged 12 to 15 who are clinically vulnerable to the virus have already been offered a COVID-19 vaccine, and today we’ll be expanding the offer to those with conditions such as sickle cell disease or type 1 diabetes to protect even more vulnerable children,” he said.
“Along with health ministers across the four nations, I have today written to the chief medical officers to ask that they consider the vaccination of 12 to 15 year olds from a broader perspective, as suggested by the JCVI.
“We will then consider the advice from the chief medical officers, building on the advice from the JCVI, before making a decision shortly.”
The JCVI investigated the extremely rare events of inflammation of the heart muscle, known as myocarditis, after Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
The condition can result in short periods of hospital observation, followed by typically swift recoveries, but the JCVI has concluded the medium to long-term outcomes are still uncertain and more follow-up time is needed to get a clearer picture.
The health secretary has asked the NHS to put preparations in place to roll out vaccinations to 12 to 15 year olds, should it be recommended by the chief medical officers despite the JCVI’s advice.
If this group is offered the vaccine, parental or carer consent will be sought, just as with other school immunisation programmes, DHSC said.
In its advisory report published on Friday, the JCVI says “the available evidence indicates that the individual health benefits from COVID-19 vaccination are small in those aged 12 to 15 years who do not have underlying health conditions which put them at risk of severe COVID-19”.
It adds: “The potential risks from vaccination are also small, with reports of post-vaccination myocarditis being very rare, but potentially serious and still in the process of being described.
“Given the rarity of these events and the limited follow-up time of children and young people with post-vaccination myocarditis, substantial uncertainty remains regarding the health risks associated with these adverse events.
“Overall, the committee is of the opinion that the benefits from vaccination are marginally greater than the potential known harms, but acknowledges that there is considerable uncertainty regarding the magnitude of the potential harms.
“The margin of benefit, based primarily on a health perspective, is considered too small to support advice on a universal programme of vaccination of otherwise healthy 12 to 15-year-old children at this time.
“As longer-term data on potential adverse reactions accrue, greater certainty may allow for a reconsideration of the benefits and harms. Such data may not be available for several months.”
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the JCVI, said the advisory group’s recommendation not to roll the coronavirus vaccine out to children younger than 15 has been based on a “risk-benefit balance” which considered the fact there has been a “very small number of deaths in this age group from COVID”.
He told a press briefing on Friday: “Although the vaccine works and would be beneficial in the sense of preventing infection and some severe disease from COVID, there are significant uncertainties around the safety of the vaccine that have not yet been clarified such that we can’t be sure that the risk-benefit balance is sufficiently good in favour and to the benefit of those children to recommend it.”
But one school leaders’ union said they were “disappointed” that COVID vaccines for healthy children aged between 12 and 15 are not being recommended by the UK’s vaccine advisory body.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We understand that this decision has been made after making an assessment of the balance of risks and with all the available evidence, and we respect that decision.
“Nevertheless, the upshot is that this would make it more difficult during the autumn term and beyond to guard against educational disruption caused by transmission of the virus.”