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The debate over vaccinating children

Throughout this pandemic one group in particular have been at the forefront of key policy debates: young people. But as we’ve learnt more about the virus, a new fault-line has emerged: the question of how and when to vaccinate young people.

Throughout this pandemic one group in particular have been at the forefront of key policy debates: young people.

From whether schools should close, to how likely children are to get sick from Covid-19, the conversation has been filled with uncertainty and doubt.

But as we’ve learnt more about the virus, a new fault-line has emerged: the question of how and when to vaccinate young people.

Today, chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton on the growing debate over whether we should be accelerating our plans to vaccinate younger Australians.

Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

BETH:
From Schwartz Media I’m Beth Atkinson-Quinton, this is 7am.

Throughout this pandemic, one group in particular have been at the forefront of key policy debates, young people. 

From whether schools should close, to how likely children are to get sick from Covid-19. The conversation has been filled with uncertainty and doubt. But as we've learnt more about the virus, a new faultline has emerged, the question of how and when to vaccinate young people.

Today, Chief Political Correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Karen Middleton, on the growing debate over whether we should be accelerating our plans to vaccinate younger Australians. 

[Theme Music Ends]

BETH:
Karen, last year at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of discussion about the risk posed to young people, particularly school age children. Now, nearly 18 months on, what do we know about how Covid-19 impacts young people? 

KAREN:
Well, it's interesting, back under the original strain of Covid-19, the view, I think, was that children were not being affected as much as adults.

Archival tape -- Unknown Person 1:
“Kids who have been found to be infected seem to be having mild illness, if any illness at all related to the infection.”

KAREN:
So after the initial data came in from around the world, while schools were closed, once we went into Hard Lockdown's, the view was that there wasn't as much risk spreading the virus amongst children.  

Archival tape -- Unknown Person 1:
“The other thing is there might be a way that kids' immune systems interact with this virus that is different than what we're seeing in some of the older adults or people who are having more severe illness.” 

KAREN:
They weren't being either infected at a higher rate or affected if they were infected as badly as adults were. So in some ways, I suppose that gave some comfort to parents that children were not as vulnerable. 

The thing we're seeing now with the Delta strain, some epidemiologists and other medical experts are pointing out, is that there are early signs that that might have changed. Now that the virus has mutated, there might be a greater risk to children. 

Archival tape -- Reporter 1:
“The news from the UK where the variant is sending even kids now to hospital has intensified the debate about vaccines.”

KAREN:
We're seeing some evidence from overseas, particularly most recently from Britain, suggesting that hospitalisation rates of children under the Delta strain have gone up. Now, the caveat on that is it's not clear whether the rate of infection and the seriousness of infection is now higher under the Delta strain or whether just because adults have now been vaccinated and a lot of adults in the UK that they are not being as hospitalised as frequently as children so that the children are a bit more obvious amongst the group of hospitalised people than they might have been before. So it's not yet clear exactly how much more dangerous the Delta strain is to children than earlier strains. But there is a view emerging that it maybe is and that they need to be factoring that in in terms of how we are responding to this new strain in Australia. 

Archival tape -- Reporter 2:
“Health officials warn the Delta strain can cause significant health problems for the young as well as the old.”

KAREN:
In recent days, we've seen at least 11 schools across Victoria that are affected by community transmission involving teachers and staff and also students. 

Archival tape -- Reporter 3:
“Two more teachers and a year nine student from Bacchus Marsh Grammar testing positive, bringing the total number of cases there to seven. 3200 students and 400 staff are in isolation with fears of more cases to come.” 

KAREN:
And I think that is really putting this issue of vaccinating children onto the political agenda in a much bigger way. 

BETH:
Hmm. And what are the experts saying about this question of vaccinating children? 

KAREN:
Well, there are some mixed views. There are some who are saying we shouldn't overstate this. We need to be careful. We need all the evidence first before we make any decisions about children. But there are others saying they think that those early signs warrant looking at this issue firmly at the government level quite soon, if not now, to make policy decisions about the vaccination of children and what the implications might be for schools. For example, I spoke to Professor Catherine Bennett from Deakin University. She's an epidemiology professor there, and she's warning that leaving children unvaccinated not only puts them at risk into the future if new strains come into the country. And she says, we really need to be thinking about the vaccination of children before lifting up the borders, international borders, because they could be vulnerable to new strains. 

But also having a section of the population unvaccinated could mean that not only are they more vulnerable to any future strains, but you could see new strains developing if those particular sections of the population are then infected at higher levels. So there are a number of potential risks, she suggests, about having children left unvaccinated. 

BETH:
Ok, so can you tell me what are the moves to start vaccinating young people? 

KAREN:
Well, there are these voices emerging more forcefully now. 

Archival tape -- Kerry Chant:
“We are seeing more infections from children spreading, which is not the characteristic we'd observed with the previous strains, so that means we need to rethink and think about our role of vaccinating children.”

KAREN:
Most recently, the New South Wales Chief Health Officer, Kerry Chant said she thinks we need to start looking about vaccinating children because of these worrying early signs about potential increased risk from the Delta strain.

Archival tape -- Kerry Chant:
“It's pleasing to see in some countries overseas that we have vaccines that are licenced for use in children. And I know the regulator, the TGA is often considering, that is continually considering the vaccine at the moment.”

KAREN:
So the conversations are being had already.

The Australian Medical Association's Western Australian branch has taken a formal policy position in favour of vaccinating children as soon as a vaccine is approved for children.   National Cabinet, the first ministers from the states, territories and the federal government have all had conversations during their meetings about this, but it has not had a formal policy agenda item on children yet. And there are some people saying that that's probably going to have to come soon. 

BETH:
We'll be back in a moment. 

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BETH:
Karen, why is it that young people are unlikely to be vaccinated anytime soon?

KAREN:
At the moment, the AstraZeneca vaccine is only approved down to the age of 18, the Pfizer vaccine to the age of 16. And there is an application in before the Therapeutic Goods Administration that is being dealt with urgently to extend that use of the Pfizer vaccine down to 12 year olds. 

But Pfizer is also conducting clinical trials overseas on children younger than that. So there are two extra cohorts that it is studying, children aged between five and 12 and then children aged from six months to five years. Those groups are going through clinical trials. 

But it's not a straightforward issue because children's physiology is not the same as adults. And if you talk to experts, they'll tell you you really have to be very careful about the dosage adjustment. And ideally, you would want to have children specific vaccines developed, but we don't have the time for that at this point. 

So they're looking at the adult vaccine and what doses they could have administered to children that won't harm them because they have a different physical reaction to the vaccine. Children mostly have a more forceful immune response. So you have to be super careful about what you do. So it's not a straightforward process. You certainly can't just give an adult dose to a child. And all of these things are under consideration when the regulators are working out what to do in relation to children.

BETH:
Okay, so what's our plan then? Younger people are possibly more at risk due to the Delta strain, but they aren't eligible for vaccines and the vaccines might not even be approved for them any time soon. So what does this mean for young people?

KAREN:
Well, it's hard to know really what the alternative is other than the restrictions on movement that we have at the moment, because the governments are all saying that vaccination is the solution in the short term to the problems that we face from Covid-19. 

We have to, I guess, not overstate the risk to children. The evidence is not clear yet. We're in a situation where there are early signs that this may be the case. And so policymakers and medical people are trying to get ahead of that and say, right, we need to be thinking about this and how we deal with it. And we certainly need to be thinking about it ahead of the reopening of borders, which is scheduled for next year. And that means the international borders.

BETH:
And so Karen, the vaccine rollout is already so slow in Australia, but some of the experts you’ve been speaking to are saying we really need to start thinking about how we're going to get young people vaccinated because they’re not eligible yet. What's at stake if we don't consider vaccinating our young people soon?

KAREN:
Well, it all does come back to the state of the vaccine rollout. And I think what some medical experts are suggesting is that because our vaccination rates are not where we want them to be, that they're still quite low, that we're at a different level of risk around our children than in some other countries where the adult vaccination rates are higher. 

In other countries where more adults have been vaccinated, the load of the virus that is circulating is lower. So even though people can still infect other people, it's not as dramatic or ferocious. In a country where there aren't as many adults vaccinated, then the viral load is higher as it circulates. And that could put the unvaccinated population at greater risk in our case, potentially including children. And that's why these experts are saying that at least we should take a clear eyed look at all of this and work out whether as a country we can get to a level of adult vaccination where we don't need to worry about the children or whether we are unlikely to do that in the short term. And therefore, we might need to take a firm position on vaccinating children if and when a vaccine is available for younger people. And that is the key.

Nobody is suggesting we should be jumping the gun or shortcutting anything that the vaccines need to follow their normal regulatory process and need to be properly approved before they can be considered for use in any young people. 

BETH:
Karen, thank you so much for your time.

KAREN:
Thank you very much.

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[Theme Music Starts]

BETH:
Also in the news today…

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has urged greater take up of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Australia, revealing he had been asking the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation to update its advice.

During a press conference yesterday, his first since last Friday, the Prime Minister refused to apologise for the slow pace of the vaccine rollout.

And as preparations for the Tokyo Olympics continue to get underway there have been nearly 70 cases of Covid-19 recorded amongst athletes and officials.

The game’s opening ceremony is scheduled for Friday evening, and tomorrow on the show we’ll be covering the latest on the ground in Tokyo with journalist Kieran Pender.

I’m Beth Atkinson-Quinton, this is 7am. I’ll see ya then.

[Theme Music Ends]

 

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