The Food and Drug Administration could expand the use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to teens early next week, The New York Times and CNN reported, both citing unnamed officials familiar with the agency’s plans.
In late March, Pfizer submitted data to the FDA showing its mRNA vaccine was 100% effective at preventing COVID-19 infection in children ages 12 to 15. Their vaccine is already authorized for use teens and adults ages 16 and older.
The move would make about 17 million more Americans eligible for vaccination and would be a major step toward getting both adolescents and teens back into classrooms full time by next fall.
“Across the globe, we are longing for a normal life. This is especially true for our children. The initial results we have seen in the adolescent studies suggest that children are particularly well protected by vaccination, which is very encouraging given the trends we have seen in recent weeks regarding the spread of the B.1.1.7 U.K. variant,” Ugur Sahin, CEO and co-founder of Pfizer partner BioNTech, said in a March 31 press release.
Getting schools fully reopened for in-person learning has been a goal of both the Trump and Biden administrations, but it has been tricky to pull off, as some parents and teachers have been reluctant to return to classrooms with so much uncertainty about the risk and the role of children in spreading the virus.
A recent study of roughly 150,000 school-aged children in Israel found that while kids under age 10 were unlikely to catch or spread the virus as they reentered classrooms. Older children, though, were a different story. The study found that children ages 10-19 had risks of catching the virus that were as high as adults ages 20-60.
The risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19 rises with age.
Children and teens are at relatively low risk from severe outcomes after a COVID-19 infection compared to adults, but they can catch it and some will get really sick with it, especially if they have an underlying health condition, like obesity or asthma that makes them more vulnerable.
Beyond the initial infection, children can get a rare late complication called MIS-C, that while treatable, can be severe and requires hospitalization. Emerging reports also suggest there are some kids that become long haulers in much the same way adults do, dealing with lingering problems for months after they first get sick.
As new variants of the coronavirus circulate in the United States, some states have seen big increases in the number of children and teens with COVID. In Michigan, for example, which recently dealt with a spring surge of cases dominated by the B.1.1.7 variant, cases in children and teens quadrupled in April compared to February.
Beyond individual protection, vaccinating children and teens has been seen as important to achieving strong community protection, or herd immunity, against the new coronavirus.
If the FDA expands the authorization for the Pfizer vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will likely meet to review data on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. The committee may then vote on new recommendations for use of the vaccine in the United States.
Not everyone agrees with the idea that American adolescents, who are at relatively low risk of bad outcomes, could get access to COVID vaccines ahead of vulnerable essential workers and seniors in other parts of the world that are still fighting the pandemic with little access to vaccines.
A version of this article first appeared on WebMD.com.