It’s Theo’s* first time in the snow. Wide-eyed, he totters outside holding his father’s hand. Sarah Holmes feels great joy in watching her 18-month-old son experience the world, “His genuine wonder and excitement gives me so much hope.”
In the summer of 2021, two months after Theo was born, Holmes, a behavioral health provider in Nebraska lost her grandparents to COVID-19. Both were vaccinated and thought they could unmask without any risk. “My grandfather was a veteran, and really trusted the government and faith leaders saying that COVID-19 wasn’t a threat anymore,” she says.” The state of emergency in Louisiana had ended and that was the message from the people they respected. “That is what killed them.”
The current official public health messaging is that regardless of what variant is circulating, the best way to be protected is to get vaccinated. These warnings no longer mention masking, or any of the other Swiss-cheese layers of mitigation that were prevalent in the early days of this ongoing pandemic.
The problem with the prevailing, vaccine centered strategy is that if you are a parent with children under five, barriers to access are real. In many cases, meaningful tools and changes that would address these obstacles are lacking, such as offering vaccines at more locations, mandating masks at these sites, and providing paid leave time to get the shots.
Children are at risk
Data presented at the most recent FDA advisory panel on COVID-19 vaccines showed that in the last year infants under six months had the third highest rate of hospitalization. “From the beginning, the message has been that kids don’t get COVID, and then the message was, well kids get COVID, but it’s not serious,” says Elias Kass, a pediatrician in Seattle. “Then they waited so long on the initial vaccines that by the time kids could get vaccinated, the majority of them had been infected.”
A closer look at the data from the CDC also reveals that from January 2022 to January 2023 children aged 6 to 23 months were more likely to be hospitalized than all other vaccine eligible pediatric age groups.
“We sort of forced an entire generation of kids to be infected with a novel virus and just don't give a shit, like nobody cares about kids,” Kass says. In some cases, COVID has wreaked havoc with the immune systems of very young children at his practice, making them vulnerable to other illnesses, he said. “And now we have kids that have had COVID two or three times, and we don’t know what is going to happen to them.”
Jumping through hurdles
Children under five were the last group to have an emergency use authorization (EUA) granted for the COVID-19 vaccine, a year and a half after adult vaccine approval. In June 2022, 30,000 sites were initially available for children across the country. Six months later, when boosters became available, there were only 5,000.
Currently, only 3.8% of children under two have completed a primary series, according to the CDC. An even more abysmal 0.2% under two have gotten a booster.
Ariadne Labs, a health center affiliated with Harvard, is trying to understand why these gaps exist. In conjunction with Boston Children’s Hospital, they have created a vaccine equity planner that maps the locations of vaccine deserts based on factors such as social vulnerability indexes and transportation access.
“People are having to travel farther because the sites are just few and far between,” says Benjy Renton, a research assistant at Ariadne.
Michelle Baltes-Breitwisch, a pharmacist, and her two-year-old daughter, Charlee, live in Iowa. When the boosters first came out she expected her toddler could get it close to home, but her husband had to drive Charlee four hours roundtrip.
This experience hasn’t been uncommon, especially in rural parts of the U.S. If parents wanted vaccines for their young children shortly after approval, they faced the prospect of loading babies and toddlers, famous for their calm demeanor, into cars for lengthy rides. The situation continues today. Mrs. Smith*, a grant writer and non-profit advisor who lives in Idaho, is still unable to get her child the bivalent booster because a two-hour one-way drive in winter weather isn’t possible.
It can be more difficult for low wage earners to take time off, which poses challenges especially in a number of rural counties across the country, where weekend hours for getting the shots may be limited.
Protect Their Future (PTF), a grassroots organization focusing on advocacy for the health care of children, hears from parents several times a week who are having trouble finding vaccines. The vaccine rollout “has been a total mess,” says Tamara Lea Spira, co-founder of PTF “It’s been very hard for people to access vaccines for children, particularly those under three.”
Seventeen states have passed laws that give pharmacists authority to vaccinate as young as six months. Under federal law, the minimum age in other states is three. Even in the states that allow vaccination of toddlers, each pharmacy chain varies. Some require prescriptions.
It takes time to make phone calls to confirm availability and book appointments online. “So it means that the parents who are getting their children vaccinated are those who are even more motivated and with the time and the resources to understand whether and how their kids can get vaccinated,” says Tiffany Green, an associate professor in population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Green adds, “And then we have the contraction of vaccine availability in terms of sites…who is most likely to be affected? It's the usual suspects, children of color, disabled children, low-income children.”
It can be more difficult for low wage earners to take time off, which poses challenges especially in a number of rural counties across the country, where weekend hours for getting the shots may be limited. In Bibb County, Ala., vaccinations take place only on Wednesdays from 1:45 to 3:00 pm.
“People who are focused on putting food on the table or stressed about having enough money to pay rent aren't going to prioritize getting vaccinated that day,” says Julia Raifman, assistant professor of health law, policy and management at Boston University. She created the COVID-19 U.S. State Policy Database, which tracks state health and economic policies related to the pandemic.
Most states in the U.S. lack paid sick leave policies, and the average paid sick days with private employers is about one week. Green says, “I think COVID should have been a wake-up call that this is necessary.”
Maskless waiting rooms
For her son, Holmes spent hours making phone calls but could uncover no clear answers. No one could estimate an arrival date for the booster. “It disappoints me greatly that the process for locating COVID-19 vaccinations for young children requires so much legwork in terms of time and resources,” she says.
In January, she found a pharmacy 30 minutes away that could vaccinate Theo. With her son being too young to mask, she waited in the car with him as long as possible to avoid a busy, maskless waiting room.
Kids under two, such as Theo, are advised not to wear masks, which make it too hard for them to breathe. With masking policies a rarity these days, waiting rooms for vaccines present another barrier to access. Even in healthcare settings, current CDC guidance only requires masking during high transmission or when treating COVID positive patients directly.
“This is a group that is really left behind,” says Raifman. “They cannot wear masks themselves. They really depend on others around them wearing masks. There's not even one train car they can go on if their parents need to take public transportation… and not risk COVID transmission.”
Yet another challenge is presented for those who don’t speak English or Spanish. According to Translators without Borders, 65 million people in America speak a language other than English. Most state departments of health have a COVID-19 web page that redirects to the federal vaccines.gov in English, with an option to translate to Spanish only.
The main avenue for accessing information on vaccines relies on an internet connection, but 22 percent of rural Americans lack broadband access. “People who lack digital access, or don’t speak English…or know how to navigate or work with computers are unable to use that service and then don’t have access to the vaccines because they just don’t know how to get to them,” Jirmanus, an affiliate of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard and a member of The People’s CDC explains. She sees this issue frequently when working with immigrant communities in Massachusetts. “You really have to meet people where they’re at, and that means physically where they’re at.”
Grassroots and advocacy organizations like PTF have been filling a lot of the holes left by spotty federal policy. “In many ways this collective care has been as important as our gains to access the vaccine itself,” says Spira, the PTF co-founder.
PTF facilitates peer-to-peer networks of parents that offer support to each other. At least one parent in the group has crowdsourced information on locations that are providing vaccines for the very young and created a spreadsheet displaying vaccine locations. “It is incredible to me still that this vacuum of information and support exists, and it took a totally grassroots and volunteer effort of parents and physicians to try and respond to this need.” says Spira.
Kass, who is also affiliated with PTF, has been vaccinating any child who comes to his independent practice, regardless of whether they’re one of his patients or have insurance. “I think putting everything on retail pharmacies is not appropriate. By the time the kids' vaccines were released, all of our mass vaccination sites had been taken down.” A big way to help parents and pediatricians would be to allow mixing and matching. Any child who has had the full Pfizer series has had to forgo a bivalent booster.
“I think getting those first two or three doses into kids should still be a priority, and I don’t want to lose sight of all that,” states Renton, the researcher at Ariadne Labs. Through the vaccine equity planner, he has been trying to see if there are places where mobile clinics can go to improve access. Renton continues to work with local and state planners to aid in vaccine planning. “I think any way we can make that process a lot easier…will go a long way into building vaccine confidence and getting people vaccinated,” Renton says.
Michelle Baltes-Breitwisch, a pharmacist, and her two-year-old daughter, Charlee, live in Iowa. Her husband had to drive four hours roundtrip to get the boosters for Charlee.
Other changes need to come from the CDC. Even though the CDC “has this historic reputation and a mission of valuing equity and promoting health,” Jirmanus says, “they’re really failing. The emphasis on personal responsibility is leaving a lot of people behind.” She believes another avenue for more equitable access is creating legislation for upgraded ventilation in indoor public spaces.
Given the gaps in state policies, federal leadership matters, Raifman says. With the FDA leaning toward a yearly COVID vaccine, an equity lens from the CDC will be even more critical. “We can have data driven approaches to using evidence based policies like mask policies, when and where they're most important,” she says. Raifman wants to see a sustainable system of vaccine delivery across the country complemented with a surge preparedness plan.
With the public health emergency ending and vaccines going to the private market sometime in 2023, it seems unlikely that vaccine access is going to improve. Now more than ever, ”We need to be able to extend to people the choice of not being infected with COVID,” Jirmanus says.
*Some names were changed for privacy reasons.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- A new mask can detect Covid and send an alert to your phone
- More promising research for a breakthrough drug to treat schizophrenia
- AI tool can create new proteins
- Connections between an unhealthy gut and breast cancer
- Progress on the longevity drug, rapamycin
And an honorable mention this week: Certain exercises may benefit some types of memory more than others
Already vaccinated and want more protection from COVID-19? A protein found in ice cream could help, some research suggests, though there are a bunch of caveats.
The protein, called lactoferrin, is found in the milk of mammals and thus in dairy products, including ice cream. It has astounding antiviral properties that have been taken for granted and remain largely unexplored because it is a natural product, meaning that it cannot be patented and exploited by pharmaceutical companies.
Jonathan Sexton runs a drug screening program at the University of Michigan where cells are infected with a pathogen and then exposed to a library of the thousands of small molecule drug compounds – which can enter the body more easily than drugs with heavier molecules – approved by the FDA. In addition, the library includes compounds that passed phase 1 safety studies but later proved ineffective against the targeted disease. Each drug is dissolved in a solvent for exposure to the cells in the laborious testing process made feasible by robotic automation.
When COVID hit, researchers scrambled to identify any approved drug that might help fight the infection. Sexton decided to screen the drug library as well as some dietary supplements against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease. Sexton says that the grunt work fell to Jesse Wotring, “a very talented PhD student,” who pulled lactoferrin off the shelf. But the regular solvent used in the testing process would destroy the protein, so he had to take another approach and do all the work by hand.
“We were agnostic,” says Sexton, who didn't have a strong interest in lactoferrin or any of the other compounds in the library, but the data was quite clear; lactoferrin “consistently produced the best efficacy...it was the absolute home run.” The findings were published in separate papers last year and in February.
It turns out that lactoferrin has several different mechanisms of action against SARS-CoV-2, inhibiting the virus from entering cells, moving around within them and replicating. Lactoferrin also modulates the overall immune response, which makes it difficult for the virus to simultaneously mutate resistance to the protein at every step of replication. “It has broad efficacy against every [SARS-CoV-2] variant that we've tested,” he says.
From bench to bedside
Sexton's initial interest was to develop a drug for the acute phase of COVID infection, to treat a hospitalized patient or prevent that hospitalization. But with the quick approval of vaccines and drugs to treat the disease, he increasingly focused on ways to better prevent infection and inhibit spread of the virus.
“If you can get lactoferrin to persist in your upper GI tract, then it may very well prevent the primary infection, and that's what we're really interested in.” He reasoned that a chewing gum formula might release enough lactoferrin into the mucosal tissue of the mouth and upper airways to inhibit replication and give the immune system a chance to knock out the virus before it can establish a foothold. It could also reduce the amount of virus spread through talking.
To get enough lactoferrin to have a possible beneficial effect, one would have to drink gallons of milk a day, “and that would have other undesirable consequences, like getting extremely obese,” says Sexton. Obesity is one of the leading risk factors for severe COVID disease.
Testing that theory has been difficult. The easiest way would be a “challenge trial,” where volunteers take the drug, or in this case gum, are exposed to the pathogen, and protection is measured. Some COVID challenge studies have been conducted in Europe but the FDA remains hesitant to allow such a study in the U.S. A traditional prevention study would be like a vaccine trial, involving thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of volunteers over a period of months or years, and it would be very expensive. No one has stepped forward to foot the bill.
So the next step for Sexton is a clinical trial of newly diagnosed COVID patients who will be given standard of care treatment, and layered on top of that they will receive either lactoferrin, probably in pill form, or a placebo. He has identified initial funding. “We would study their viral load over time as well as their symptoms.”
One issue the FDA is grappling with in considering the proposed trial is that it typically decides whether to approve drugs from a factory by applying a rigorous standard, called good manufacturing practices, while food products, which are the source of lactoferrin, are produced under somewhat different standards. The agency still has not finalized rules on how to deal with natural products used as drugs, such as fecal transplants, convalescent plasma, or medical marijuana.
Sexton is frustrated by the delay because lactoferrin derived from bovine milk whey has been used for many decades as a protein supplement by athletes, it is a large component of most infant formula, and the largest number of clinical studies of lactoferrin involve premature infants. There is no question of its safety, he says.
Do it yourself
So what can you do while waiting for regulatory wheels to spin and clinical trial data to be generated?
Could a dose of Ben & Jerry's provide some protection against SARS-CoV-2?
Sexton chuckles at the suggestion. He supposes it couldn't hurt. But to get enough lactoferrin to have a possible beneficial effect, one would have to drink gallons of milk a day, “and that would have other undesirable consequences, like getting extremely obese.” Obesity is one of the leading risk factors for severe COVID disease.
Pseudo-milk products made from soy, almonds, oats, or other plant products do not contain lactoferrin; it has to come from a teat. So that rules them out.
Whey-based protein shakes might be a useful way to add lactoferrin to the diet.
Probably the best option is to take conventional gelatin capsules of lactoferrin that are widely available wherever supplements are sold. Sexton calculates that about a gram a day, four 250 milligram capsules, should do it. He advises two in the morning and two a night. “You really want to take them on an empty stomach...your stomach treats [the lactoferrin protein] like it would a steak” and chops it for absorption in the intestine, which you do not want. About 70 percent of lactoferrin can get through an empty stomach, but eating food cranks up digestive gastric acids and the amount of intact lactoferrin that gets through to the gut plummets.
Sexton cautions, “We have not determined clinical efficacy yet,” and he is not offering advice as a physician, but in the spirit of harm reduction, he realizes that some people are going to try things that might help them. Lactoferrin “is remarkably safe. And so people have to make their own decisions about what they are willing to take and what they are not,” he says.