Six Questions about the Kids' COVID Vaccine, Answered by an Infectious Disease Doctor
I enthusiastically support the vaccination against COVID for children aged 5-11 years old. As an infectious disease doctor who took care of hundreds of COVID-19 patients over the past 20 months, I have seen the immediate and long-term consequences of COVID-19 on patients – and on their families. As a father of two daughters, I have lived through the fear and anxiety of protecting my kids at all cost from the scourges of the pandemic and worried constantly about bringing the virus home from work.
It is imperative that we vaccinate as many children in the community as possible. There are several reasons why. First children do get sick from COVID-19. Over the course of the pandemic in the U.S, more than 2 million children aged 5-11 have become infected, more than 8000 have been hospitalized, and more than 100 have died, making COVID one of the top 10 causes of pediatric deaths in this age group over the past year. Children are also susceptible to chronic consequences of COVID such as long COVID and multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). Most studies demonstrate that 10-30% of children will develop chronic symptoms following COVID-19. These include complaints of brain fog, fatigue, trouble breathing, fever, headache, muscle and joint pains, abdominal pain, mood swings and even psychiatric disorders. Symptoms typically last from 4-8 weeks in children, with some reporting symptoms that persist for many months.
Second, children are increasingly recognized as vectors who can bring infection into the house, potentially transmitting infection to vulnerable household members. Finally, we have all seen the mayhem that results when one child in the classroom becomes infected with COVID and the other students get sent home to quarantine – across the U.S., more than 2000 schools have been affected this way.
We now have an extraordinarily effective vaccine with more than 90 percent efficacy at preventing symptomatic infection. Vaccinating children will boost our countrywide vaccination rate which is trailing many countries after an early start. Nevertheless, there are still many questions and concerns that parents have as the vaccine gets rolled out. I will address six of them here.
"Novel Vaccine Technology"
Even though this is a relatively new vaccine, the technology is not new. Scientists had worked on mRNA vaccines for decades prior to the COVID mRNA vaccine breakthrough. Furthermore, experience with the Pfizer COVID vaccine is rapidly growing. By now it has been more than a year and a half since the Pfizer trials began in March 2020, and more than 7 billion doses have already been administered globally, including in 13.7 million adolescents in the U.S. alone.
"Will This Vaccine Alter My Child's DNA?"
No. This is not how mRNA works. DNA is present in the cell's nucleus. The mRNA only stays in the outside cytoplasm, gets destroyed and never enters the inner sanctum of the nucleus. Furthermore, for the mRNA to be ever integrated into DNA, it requires a special enzyme called reverse transcriptase which humans don't have. Proteins (that look like the spike proteins on SARS-CoV-2) are made directly from this mRNA message without involvement of our DNA at any time. Pieces of spike proteins get displayed on the outside of our cells and our body makes protective antibodies that then protects us handily against the future real virus if it were ever to enter our (or our children's) bodies. Our children's DNA or genes can never be affected by an mRNA vaccine.
"Lack of Info on Long-Term Side Effects"
Unlike medications that are taken daily or periodically and can build up over time, the mRNA in the Pfizer vaccine is evanescent. It literally is just the messenger (that is what the "m" in mRNA stands for) and the messenger quickly disappears. mRNA is extremely fragile and easily inactivated – that's why we need to encase it in a special fatty bubble and store the vaccines at extremely cold temperatures. Our cells break down and destroy the mRNA within a few days after receiving the instructions to make the virus spike proteins. The presence of these fragments of the virus (note this is not "live" virus) prompts our immune system to generate protective antibodies to the real thing. Our bodies break down mRNA all the time in normal cellular processes – this is nothing new.
What the transience of the delivery system means is that most of the effects of the mRNA vaccines are expected to be more immediate (sore arm, redness at the site, fever, chills etc.), with no long-term side effects anticipated. A severe allergic response has been reported to occur in some generally within the first 15 minutes, is very rare, and everyone gets observed for that as part of standard vaccine administration. Even with the very uncommon complication of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart) seen primarily in young men under the age of 30 following mRNA vaccines, these typically happen within days to 2 weeks and many return to work or school in days. In the 70-year history of pediatric (and adult vaccines), dangerous complications happen in the first two months. There have been millions of adolescents as young as 12 years and thousands in the initial trial of children aged 5-11 who have already received the vaccine and are well beyond the two-month period of observation. There is no biological reason to believe that younger children will have a different long-term side effect profile compared to adolescents or adults.
"Small Sample Size in Kids and the Trial Design"
Although the Pfizer trial in children aged 5-11 was relatively small, it was big enough to give us statistical confidence in assessing safety and efficacy outcomes. Scientists spend a lot of time determining the right sample size of a study during the design phase. On one hand, you want to conduct the study efficiently so that resources are used in a cost-effective way and that you get a timely answer, especially in a fast-moving pandemic. On the other hand, you want to make sure you have enough sample size so that you can answer the question confidently as to whether the intervention works and whether there are adverse effects. The more profound the effect size of the intervention (in this case the vaccine), the fewer the numbers of children needed in the trials.
Statistics help investigators determine whether the results seen would have appeared by chance or not. In this case, the effect was real and impressive. Over 3,000 children around the world have received the vaccines through the trials alone with no serious side effects detected. The first press release reported that the immune response in children aged 5-11 was similar (at one-third the vaccine dose) to the response in the comparator group aged 16-25 years old. Extrapolating clinical efficacy results from immune response measurements ("immunobridging" study) would already have been acceptable if this was the only data. This is a standard trial design for many pediatric vaccines. Vaccines are first tested in the lab, followed by animals then adults. Only when deemed safe in adults and various regulatory bodies have signed off, do the pediatric vaccine trials commence.
Because children's immune systems and bodies are in a constant state of development, the vaccines must be right-sized. Investigators typically conduct "age de-escalation" studies in various age groups. The lowest dose is first tried so see if that is effective, then the dose is increased gradually as needed. Immune response is the easiest, safest and most efficient way to test the efficacy of pediatric vaccines. This is a typical size and design of a childhood vaccine seeking regulatory approval. There is no reason to think that the clinical efficacy would be any different in children vs. adults for a given antibody response, given the experience already in the remainder of the population, including older children and adolescents. Although this was primarily designed as an "immunobridging" study, the initial immunologic response data was followed by real clinical outcomes in this population. Reporting on the outcomes of 2,268 children in the randomized controlled trial, the vaccine was 90.7% effective at preventing symptomatic infection.
"Fear of Myocarditis"
Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart) have been associated with receipt of the mRNA vaccines, particularly among male adolescents and young adults, typically within a few days after receiving the second dose. But this is very rare. For every million vaccine recipients, you would expect 41 cases in males, and 4 cases in females aged 12-29 years-old. The risk in older age groups is substantially lower. It is important to recognize that the risk of myocarditis associated with COVID is substantially higher. Patients present with new chest pain, shortness of breath, or palpitations after receiving an mRNA vaccine (more common after the second dose). But outcomes are good if associated with the vaccine. Most respond well to treatment and resolve symptoms within a week. There have been no deaths associated with vaccine-associated myocarditis.
In contrast, COVID-associated myocarditis has been associated with more severe cases as well as other complications including chronic symptoms of long COVID. The risk of myocarditis is likely related to vaccine dose, so the fact that one-third the dose of the vaccine will be used in the 5-11 year-olds is expected to correspond to a lower risk of myocarditis. At the lower dose given to younger kids, there has been a lower incidence of adverse effects reported compared to older children and adults who received the full dose. In addition, baseline rates of myocarditis not associated with vaccination are much lower in children ages 5-11 years than in older children, so the same may hold true for vaccine-associated myocarditis cases. This is because myocarditis is associated with sex hormones (particularly testosterone) that surge during puberty. In support of this, the incidence of vaccine-associated myocarditis is lower in 12–15-year-old boys, compared to those who were older than 16 years old. There were no cases of myocarditis reported in the experience to date of 5–11-year-old children in the trials, although the trial was too small to pick up on such a rare effect.
"Optimal Dose Spacing Interval: Longer Than 3 Weeks?"
There is a biologic basis for increasing the interval between vaccine doses in general. Priming the immune system with the first shot and then waiting gives the second shot a better chance of prompting a secondary immune reaction that results in a more durable response (with more T cell driven immune memory). One study from the U.K. showed that the antibody response in people over 80 was more than 3 times higher if they delayed the second dose to after 12 weeks for the Pfizer vaccine instead of the 3 weeks studied in trials. In a study of 503 British health care workers, there were twice as many neutralizing antibodies produced in a longer interval group (6-14 weeks) versus a shorter interval group (3-4 weeks) between doses. However, the safety and efficacy with longer intervals has not been evaluated in the pediatric or other COVID vaccine trials.
In the U.S., the C.D.C. reported that 88 percent of counties are at a "high" or "substantial" level of community transmission. Also, Europe is already experiencing a winter surge of infections that may predict more U.S. winter cases as international travel reopens. During a time of high community virus burden with a highly transmissible Delta variant, relying on one dose of vaccine for several more weeks until the second may leave many more susceptible to infection while waiting. One study from England showed that one dose of the Pfizer vaccine was only 33% protective against symptomatic Delta infection in contrast to 50% for the Alpha variant in adults. There has been no corollary information in children but we would expect less protection in general from one vaccine dose vs. two. This is a particularly important issue with the upcoming holiday season when an increased number of families will travel. Some countries such as the U.K. and Norway have proceeded with only offering older than 12 year-olds one dose of vaccine rather than two, but this was before the current European surge which may change the risk-benefit calculus. There are no plans to only offer one vaccine dose in the U.S. at this time. However a lower dose of the vaccine will likely be studied in the future for adolescents aged 12-15.
For parents worried about the potential risk of adverse effects of two doses of vaccines in their children, it is reasonable to wait 6-12 weeks for the second shot but it all depends on your risk-benefit calculus. There is biological plausibility to pursue this strategy. Although there is no pediatric-specific data to draw from, a longer interval may lengthen immune memory and potentially decrease the risk of myocarditis, particularly in boys. There may only be partial benefit in eliciting protective antibodies after one vaccine dose but only 2-4% of children are hospitalized with COVID once infected, with risk of severe illness increasing if they have comorbidities.
There are also some data indicating that 40% of children have already been exposed to infection naturally and may not need further protection after one shot. However, this percentage is likely a large overestimation given the way the data was collected. Using antibody tests to ascertain previous infection in children may be problematic for several reasons: uncertainty regarding duration of protection, variability in symptoms in children with most having very mild symptoms, and the lack of standardization of antibody tests in general. Overall, if the child has medical comorbidities such as diabetes, parents are planning to travel with their children, if local epidemiology shows increasing cases, and if there are elderly or immunocompromised individuals in the household, I would vaccinate children with two doses as per the original recommended schedule.
Bottom line: Given the time of the year and circulating Delta, I would probably stick with the recommended 3-week interval between doses for now for most children. But if parents choose a longer interval between the first and second dose for their children, I wouldn't worry too much about it. Better to be vaccinated - even if slowly, over time -- than not at all.
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.