Even as schools reopen, concerns remain about children being potential spreaders of COVID. An international study shows that children with the virus can infect other people, debunking the earlier assumption that they are less infectious.
A study conducted by Harvard and MIT (US) researchers observed 110 children aged two weeks to 21 years, who were tested positive for COVID-19 at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) or urgent care clinics, to conclude that high levels of virus correspond with live, infectious virus, and that levels are highest early in the illness in both symptomatic and asymptomatic children. There was no correlation between the age of the children and the amount of their viral load.
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“There had been the question about whether the high viral load in children correlated with the live virus. We’ve been able to provide a definitive answer that these high viral loads are infectious,” said Lael Yonker, a pediatric pulmonologist at MGH and co-first author with Julie Boucau, a senior research scientist at MGH and the Ragon Institute.
The general perception is that since most children are asymptomatic or only mildly symptomatic when they catch COVID, they are less infectious. This assumption has now been debunked.
On the positive side though, researchers found no correlation between viral load and severity of disease in children.
Scientists studied virologic features of SARS-CoV-2 in children with COVID-19 and how SARS-CoV-2 infection differs between children and adults, to conclude that schools and the administration need to ensure safety within the school for keeping the pandemic under check, says Yonker.
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The study also found that “infected children are potential reservoirs for the evolution of new variants as well as potential spreaders of current variants”.
“Kids with COVID-19, even if asymptomatic, are infectious and can harbour SARS-CoV-2 variants. Variants could potentially impact both the severity of the disease and the efficacy of vaccines, as we are seeing with the Delta variant. When we cultured the live virus, we found a wide variety of genetic variants,” adds Yonker.
“New variants have the potential to be more contagious and also make kids sicker,” said Yonker, emphasising the importance of masks for children. “The implications of this study show that masking and other public health measures are needed for everyone — children, adolescents, and adults — to get us out of this pandemic.”