When can schools finally reopen? WHO top scientist has all your doubts cleared

Amid concerns that third wave may affect children and children's vaccines may take time to be available, Swaminathan said schools should only reopen after teachers are vaccinated and transmission is down

Soumya Swaminathan
WHO's chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan said many vaccine developers have already started their paediatric trials. The Pfizer vaccine for children above 12 years has been approved. Photo: iStock

Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist, has said on Sunday that India-made nasal vaccines could turn out to be the “game changer” for children in fighting COVID-19. However, these nasal vaccines may not be available this year, she pointed out, and warned that schools should only be reopened when community transmission is down and teachers vaccinated.

In an interview to CNN-News18, Swaminathan said that the nasal vaccines will be easy to administer and will provide local immunity in the respiratory tract of children. Her observations were made in the backdrop of the growing concerns over the impact of the probable third wave on children.

Swaminathan, a paediatrician and clinical scientist, who is one of the top WHO officials leading global efforts to coordinate the pandemic response, however, insisted that till there is an effective vaccine for children, teachers need to get vaccinated on a priority basis and schools reopened only when the risk of community transmission is low.

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Also read: Vaccinate teachers before reopening schools: Lancet’s India Task Force

“I am very hopeful that ultimately we’ll have vaccines for children. But that’s not going to happen this year, and we should open schools when community transmission is down,” she told CNN-News18, adding that other countries have done the same. A Lancet COVID-19 Commission’s India Task Force too had suggested that schools should open only after teachers, staff and the support staff cohort were vaccinated and all the COVID-19 safety norms and protocols were in place.

On Saturday (May 22), VK Paul, NITI Aayog (health member) told the media that contradictory to popular assumptions, children are vulnerable to COVID-19 but they are asymptomatic or show only mild symptoms. The government is therefore focussed on ensuring that minors do not become part of the transmission chain through which the disease spreads.

In India, 26 per cent of the population is less than 14 years of age and nearly seven per cent are less than five-years-old.

Earlier, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights too has written to the Union Health Ministry and Indian Council of Medical Research alerting that a third COVID-19 wave may affect children in large numbers as suggested by health experts. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too in a recent meeting with state and district officials, had asked them to collect data on the infection transmission and severity among youth and children.

In the second wave, India reported children as young as newborns being infected by the virus. States like Karnataka and the capital Delhi have seen a significant and worrying rise in the number of children and adolescents testing positive for COVID-19. Delhi has in fact decided to form a special task force and to make arrangements for beds, oxygen and other medical infrastructure in case the third COVID wave affects children. Other states like Maharashtra too are setting up a paediatric facility in Mumbai.

Enough alarm bells are being rung  by experts who claim that the nearly 60 per cent of the children in India are vulnerable and there are no vaccines as yet for them.

Also read: Children too highly susceptible to COVID-19 in second wave

Meanwhile, Swaminathan pointed out there are many vaccine developers who have already started their paediatric trials, like the Pfizer vaccine. The Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine has now been approved for children over the age of 12 and trials in younger children are ongoing, she said.  Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will get approval  in a couple of months, she added.

In the case of the AstraZeneca and other vaccines for younger people however there’s a slower development because of the rare side effects noted in younger generation given the adenoviral vaccines, said Swaminathan. But, she assured that other classes of vaccines were coming on board.

Moderna is testing its vaccine in 3,000 children ages 12 to 17 and may have results for that age group within weeks. Johnson & Johnson in April also began studying 12- to 17-year-olds, said newspaper reports. Recently, Canada, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates too approved the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use in the 12-15 age group. In India, currently, Zydus’ ZyCoV-D and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin (already being used for adults) are under trial for children above the age of 12.

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