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Vaccinating children is key for herd immunity, say experts. How far away is such a jab?

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Children at Seymour Road Academy sit in designated areas in the playground during the coronavirus outbreak in Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020.
Children at Seymour Road Academy sit in designated areas in the playground during the coronavirus outbreak in Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Jon Super
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Coronavirus vaccine trials are underway to determine if the jab is safe for children.

Multiple studies have shown the number of children who get severely ill from COVID-19 is very small and that the disease is more likely to hospitalise adults.

But vaccinating youngsters will eventually be an important part of the solution, experts say, to ensure herd immunity.

Here's a look at what we know about vaccinating children against COVID-19.

Multiple studies underway to determine if children can be vaccinated

Several vaccine companies are just beginning vaccine trials on younger children.

US biotechnology firm Moderna, which has its mRNA vaccine authorised in the US and Europe, said on Tuesday it plans to enrol 6,750 youngsters between the ages of 6 months and 12 years in its vaccine trial.

In December, Moderna had begun a trial of its COVID-19 vaccine in teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17. The trial had around 3,000 participants.

Oxford University and AstraZeneca announced in February plans to trial their COVID-19 vaccine on children between the ages of six and 17 to determine if they make an immune response to the vaccine.

The UK study enrolled 300 participants of which some 240 received the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

"While most children are relatively unaffected by coronavirus and are unlikely to become unwell with the infection, it is important to establish the safety and immune response to the vaccine in children and young people, as some children may benefit from vaccination," said Professor Andrew Pollard, the chief investigator on the Oxford vaccine trial, in a statement.

Pfizer is currently testing the COVID-19 vaccine produced with German biotechnology company BioNTech on children.

A spokesperson for the company told Euronews there are 2,259 participants in a trial of 12 to 15-year-olds.

"Pfizer and BioNTech expect to start additional studies in children between the ages of 5 and 11 over the next couple of months, and in children younger than five later in 2021," the spokesperson said.

The US president's chief medical advisor Dr Anthony Fauci predicted that trial information on children between the ages of 12 and 17 would be available by the autumn but that information on younger children would be available in 2022.

"We will not have data on elementary school children until at least the first quarter of 2022," Dr Fauci said.

Children at less risk of developing severe COVID-19

It's well documented that children are less likely to develop severe COVID-19 than adults.

According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, out of 190,000 deaths due to COVID-19 analysed in the United States, 121 people were under the age of 21. Of those people, 75% had an underlying medical condition.

An Italian report of all COVID-19 deaths said that there had been 21 deaths in people under the age of 19. UK national statistics showed that there were 20 deaths in people under the age of 19 due to COVID-19 through January 2021.

Germany's Robert Koch Institute said that 10 people under the age of 19 had died of COVID-19 up until March 2021 while in France, a total of four people under the age of 14 died of COVID-19, according to the country's public health body.

"The actual number of children hospitalised is very small compared to adult numbers and of that subset of children, the proportion of the severely ill is also very small," said Dr Thomas Christie Williams, a paediatrician and clinical lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.

Christie Williams added that it used to be thought that children did not transmit the virus either but that experts' opinions had evolved on this.

"They probably do transmit the virus, they probably can transmit it to each other within different settings. I think we can say that children don't transmit more than adults, and probably the extent to which they transmit depends a bit on age," he told Euronews.

He says children are likely not "super spreaders" of the virus as there haven't been many primary school outbreaks.

Vaccinating children could be key to achieving population immunity

Despite trials just beginning in younger children, experts argue that vaccinating children could be an important step in achieving greater population immunity to the coronavirus.

"Six months ago, people wouldn't have contemplated vaccinating kids. But they can transmit disease and you're not going to eliminate disease without immunising children. A quite large portion of most countries' population is children," Christie Williams said.

In an editorial published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Perri Klass and Adam Ratner, who work in paediatrics at New York University, argue that "effective herd immunity will require paediatric [child] vaccination."

Klass and Ratner discuss the example of measles, pointing out that the virus does not cause severe illness in children, but that vaccinating them was essential in reducing cases of the illness.

They say that it can be difficult to convince parents to vaccinate their children against a virus that does not cause severe illness in children so the vaccination campaign will have to show the benefits of doing so.

"I think any immunisation campaign will have to have to convince people that you're protecting children against a very very rare risk of severe disease and you're also helping to protect the population," says Christie Williams.

But he's not worried about people refusing the vaccine saying that uptake for the COVID-19 vaccine has been high in the US and UK for instance.

"If getting on with your lives means everyone getting vaccinated, I think people will be on board with that," he said.