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.
Lori Tipton's life was a cascade of trauma that even a soap opera would not dare inflict upon a character: a mentally unstable family; a brother who died of a drug overdose; the shocking discovery of the bodies of two persons her mother had killed before turning the gun on herself; the devastation of Hurricane Katrina that savaged her hometown of New Orleans; being raped by someone she trusted; and having an abortion. She suffered from severe PTSD.
“My life was filled with anxiety and hypervigilance,” she says. “I was constantly afraid and had mood swings, panic attacks, insomnia, intrusive thoughts and suicidal ideation. I tried to take my life more than once.” She was fortunate to be able to access multiple mental health services, “And while at times some of these modalities would relieve the symptoms, nothing really lasted and nothing really address the core trauma.”
Then in 2018 Tipton enrolled in a clinical trial that combined intense sessions of psychotherapy with limited use of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, a drug classified as a psychedelic and commonly known as ecstasy or Molly. The regimen was arduous; 1-2 hour preparation sessions, three sessions where MDMA was used, which lasted 6-8 hours, and lengthy sessions afterward to process and integrate the experiences. Two therapists were with her every moment of the three-month program that totaled more than 40 hours.
“It was clear to me that [the therapists] weren't going to heal me, that I was going to have to do the work for myself, but that they were there to completely support my process,” she says. “But the effects of MDMA were really undeniable for me. I felt embodied in a way that I hadn't in years. PTSD had robbed me of the ability to feel safe in my own body.”
Tipton doesn’t think the therapy completely cured her PTSD. “But when I completed the trial in 2018, I no longer qualified for the diagnosis, and I still don't qualify for the diagnosis today,” she told an April workshop on psychedelics as mental health treatment by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, or NASEM.
Rick Doblin has been a catalyst behind much of the contemporary research into psychedelics. Prior to the DEA clamp down, the Boston psychotherapist had seen that MDMA and other psychedelics could benefit some of his patients where other measures had failed. He immediately organized efforts to question the drug rescheduling but to little avail. In 1986, he created the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which slowly laid the scientific foundation for clinical trials, including the one that Tipton joined, using psychedelics to treat mental health conditions.
Now, only slowly, have researchers been able to explore the power of these drugs to treat a broad spectrum of severely debilitating mental health conditions, including trauma, depression, and PTSD, where other available treatments proved inadequate.
“Psychedelic psychotherapy is an attempt to go after the root causes of the problems with just a relatively few administrations, as contrasted to most of the psychiatric drugs used today that are mostly just reducing symptoms and are meant to be taken on a daily basis,” Doblin said in a 2019 TED Talk. Most of these drugs can have broad effect but “some are probably more effective than others for certain conditions,” he added in a recent interview with Leaps.org. Comparative head-to-head studies of psychedelic therapies simply have not been conducted.
Their mechanisms of action are poorly understood and can vary between drugs, but it is generally believed that psychedelics change the activity of neurons so that the brain processes information differently, says Katrin Preller, a neuropsychologist at the University of Zurich. A recent important study in Nature Medicine by Richard Daws and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain and found that “functional networks became more functionally interconnected and flexible after psilocybin treatment…implying that psilocybin's antidepressant action may depend on a global increase in brain network integration.”
Rosalind Watts, a clinical investigator at the Imperial College in London, believes there is “an overestimation of the importance of the drug and an underestimation of the importance of the [therapeutic] context” in psychedelic research. “It is unethical to provide the drug without the other,” she says. Doblin notes that “psychotherapy outcomes research demonstrates that the therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the patients is the single most predictive factor of outcomes. [It is] trust and the sense of safety, the willingness to go into difficult spaces” that makes clinical breakthroughs possible with the drug.
Excitement and Challenges
Recurrent themes expressed at the NASEM workshop were exciting glimpses of the potential for psychedelics to treat mental health conditions combined with the challenges of realizing those potentials. A recent review paper found evidence that using psychedelics can help with treating a variety of common mental illnesses, but the paper could identify only 14 clinical trials of classic psychedelics published since 1991. Much of the reason is that the drugs are not patentable and so the pharmaceutical industry has no interest in investing in expensive clinical trials to bring them to market. MAPS has raised about $135 million over its 36-year history to conduct such research, says Doblin, the vast majority of it from individual donors and none from foundations.
The workshop participants’ views also were colored by the history of drug crackdowns and a fear that research might easily be shut down in the future. There was great concern that use of psychedelics should be confined to clinical trials with high safety and ethical standards, instead of doctors and patients experimenting on their own. “We need to get it right this time,” says Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at the UCLA School of Medicine. But restricting access to psychedelics will become even more difficult now that Oregon and several cities have acted to decriminalize possession and use of many of these drugs.
The experience with ketamine also troubled Grob. He is hoping to “mitigate the rush of rapid commercialization” that occurred with that drug. Ketamine technically is not a psychedelic though it does share some of their potentially euphoric properties. In 2019, soon after the FDA approved a form of ketamine with a limited label indication to treat depression, for profit clinics sprang up promoting off label use of the drug for psychiatric conditions where there was little clinical evidence of efficacy. He fears the same thing will happen when true psychedelics are made available.
If these therapies are approved, access to them is likely to be a problem. The drugs themselves are cheap but the accompanying therapy is not, and there is a shortage of trained psychotherapists. Mental health services often are not adequately covered by health insurance, while the poor and people of color suffer additional burdens of inadequate access. Doblin is committed to health care equity by training additional providers and by investigating whether some of the preparatory and integration sessions might be handled in a group setting. He says it is important that the legal aspects of psychedelics also be addressed so that patients “don't have to go underground” in order to receive this care.
As a type 2 diabetic, Michael Snyder has long been interested in how blood sugar levels vary from one person to another in response to the same food, and whether a more personalized approach to nutrition could help tackle the rapidly cascading levels of diabetes and obesity in much of the western world.
Eight years ago, Snyder, who directs the Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine at Stanford University, decided to put his theories to the test. In the 2000s continuous glucose monitoring, or CGM, had begun to revolutionize the lives of diabetics, both type 1 and type 2. Using spherical sensors which sit on the upper arm or abdomen – with tiny wires that pierce the skin – the technology allowed patients to gain real-time updates on their blood sugar levels, transmitted directly to their phone.
It gave Snyder an idea for his research at Stanford. Applying the same technology to a group of apparently healthy people, and looking for ‘spikes’ or sudden surges in blood sugar known as hyperglycemia, could provide a means of observing how their bodies reacted to an array of foods.
“We discovered that different foods spike people differently,” he says. “Some people spike to pasta, others to bread, others to bananas, and so on. It’s very personalized and our feeling was that building programs around these devices could be extremely powerful for better managing people’s glucose.”
Unbeknown to Snyder at the time, thousands of miles away, a group of Israeli scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science were doing exactly the same experiments. In 2015, they published a landmark paper which used CGM to track the blood sugar levels of 800 people over several days, showing that the biological response to identical foods can vary wildly. Like Snyder, they theorized that giving people a greater understanding of their own glucose responses, so they spend more time in the normal range, may reduce the prevalence of type 2 diabetes.
The commercial potential of such apps is clear, but the underlying science continues to generate intriguing findings.
“At the moment 33 percent of the U.S. population is pre-diabetic, and 70 percent of those pre-diabetics will become diabetic,” says Snyder. “Those numbers are going up, so it’s pretty clear we need to do something about it.”
Fast forward to 2022,and both teams have converted their ideas into subscription-based dietary apps which use artificial intelligence to offer data-informed nutritional and lifestyle recommendations. Snyder’s spinoff, January AI, combines CGM information with heart rate, sleep, and activity data to advise on foods to avoid and the best times to exercise. DayTwo–a start-up which utilizes the findings of Weizmann Institute of Science–obtains microbiome information by sequencing stool samples, and combines this with blood glucose data to rate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods for a particular person.
“CGMs can be used to devise personalized diets,” says Eran Elinav, an immunology professor and microbiota researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in addition to serving as a scientific consultant for DayTwo. “However, this process can be cumbersome. Therefore, in our lab we created an algorithm, based on data acquired from a big cohort of people, which can accurately predict post-meal glucose responses on a personal basis.”
The commercial potential of such apps is clear. DayTwo, who market their product to corporate employers and health insurers rather than individual consumers, recently raised $37 million in funding. But the underlying science continues to generate intriguing findings.
Last year, Elinav and colleagues published a study on 225 individuals with pre-diabetes which found that they achieved better blood sugar control when they followed a personalized diet based on DayTwo’s recommendations, compared to a Mediterranean diet. The journal Cell just released a new paper from Snyder’s group which shows that different types of fibre benefit people in different ways.
“The idea is you hear different fibres are good for you,” says Snyder. “But if you look at fibres they’re all over the map—it’s like saying all animals are the same. The responses are very individual. For a lot of people [a type of fibre called] arabinoxylan clearly reduced cholesterol while the fibre inulin had no effect. But in some people, it was the complete opposite.”
Eight years ago, Stanford's Michael Snyder began studying how continuous glucose monitors could be used by patients to gain real-time updates on their blood sugar levels, transmitted directly to their phone.
The Snyder Lab, Stanford Medicine
Because of studies like these, interest in precision nutrition approaches has exploded in recent years. In January, the National Institutes of Health announced that they are spending $170 million on a five year, multi-center initiative which aims to develop algorithms based on a whole range of data sources from blood sugar to sleep, exercise, stress, microbiome and even genomic information which can help predict which diets are most suitable for a particular individual.
“There's so many different factors which influence what you put into your mouth but also what happens to different types of nutrients and how that ultimately affects your health, which means you can’t have a one-size-fits-all set of nutritional guidelines for everyone,” says Bruce Y. Lee, professor of health policy and management at the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health.
With the falling costs of genomic sequencing, other precision nutrition clinical trials are choosing to look at whether our genomes alone can yield key information about what our diets should look like, an emerging field of research known as nutrigenomics.
The ASPIRE-DNA clinical trial at Imperial College London is aiming to see whether particular genetic variants can be used to classify individuals into two groups, those who are more glucose sensitive to fat and those who are more sensitive to carbohydrates. By following a tailored diet based on these sensitivities, the trial aims to see whether it can prevent people with pre-diabetes from developing the disease.
But while much hope is riding on these trials, even precision nutrition advocates caution that the field remains in the very earliest of stages. Lars-Oliver Klotz, professor of nutrigenomics at Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena, Germany, says that while the overall goal is to identify means of avoiding nutrition-related diseases, genomic data alone is unlikely to be sufficient to prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes.
“Genome data is rather simple to acquire these days as sequencing techniques have dramatically advanced in recent years,” he says. “However, the predictive value of just genome sequencing is too low in the case of obesity and prediabetes.”
Others say that while genomic data can yield useful information in terms of how different people metabolize different types of fat and specific nutrients such as B vitamins, there is a need for more research before it can be utilized in an algorithm for making dietary recommendations.
“I think it’s a little early,” says Eileen Gibney, a professor at University College Dublin. “We’ve identified a limited number of gene-nutrient interactions so far, but we need more randomized control trials of people with different genetic profiles on the same diet, to see whether they respond differently, and if that can be explained by their genetic differences.”
Some start-ups have already come unstuck for promising too much, or pushing recommendations which are not based on scientifically rigorous trials. The world of precision nutrition apps was dubbed a ‘Wild West’ by some commentators after the founders of uBiome – a start-up which offered nutritional recommendations based on information obtained from sequencing stool samples –were charged with fraud last year. The weight-loss app Noom, which was valued at $3.7 billion in May 2021, has been criticized on Twitter by a number of users who claimed that its recommendations have led to them developed eating disorders.
With precision nutrition apps marketing their technology at healthy individuals, question marks have also been raised about the value which can be gained through non-diabetics monitoring their blood sugar through CGM. While some small studies have found that wearing a CGM can make overweight or obese individuals more motivated to exercise, there is still a lack of conclusive evidence showing that this translates to improved health.
However, independent researchers remain intrigued by the technology, and say that the wealth of data generated through such apps could be used to help further stratify the different types of people who become at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
“CGM not only enables a longer sampling time for capturing glucose levels, but will also capture lifestyle factors,” says Robert Wagner, a diabetes researcher at University Hospital Düsseldorf. “It is probable that it can be used to identify many clusters of prediabetic metabolism and predict the risk of diabetes and its complications, but maybe also specific cardiometabolic risk constellations. However, we still don’t know which forms of diabetes can be prevented by such approaches and how feasible and long-lasting such self-feedback dietary modifications are.”
Snyder himself has now been wearing a CGM for eight years, and he credits the insights it provides with helping him to manage his own diabetes. “My CGM still gives me novel insights into what foods and behaviors affect my glucose levels,” he says.
He is now looking to run clinical trials with his group at Stanford to see whether following a precision nutrition approach based on CGM and microbiome data, combined with other health information, can be used to reverse signs of pre-diabetes. If it proves successful, January AI may look to incorporate microbiome data in future.
“Ultimately, what I want to do is be able take people’s poop samples, maybe a blood draw, and say, ‘Alright, based on these parameters, this is what I think is going to spike you,’ and then have a CGM to test that out,” he says. “Getting very predictive about this, so right from the get go, you can have people better manage their health and then use the glucose monitor to help follow that.”