Every weekend since January, pediatrician Cora Collette Breuner has volunteered to give the COVID-19 vaccine to individuals from age 12 to 96 in an underserved community in Washington state.
Even though the COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to be incredibly safe and effective, there's still quite a bit of hesitancy among parents to vaccinate their teenage children, says Breuner, an adolescent medicine specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital and a past chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Adolescence. "They have questions and they have questions," she says.
Breuner patiently answers them all. Even then, parents—who have the final say in whether their child gets the vaccine—may be reluctant to sign off on it.
In 41 states, parents must consent for minors under age 18 to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. One state—Nebraska—requires parental consent for individuals under age 19, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Healthcare workers can't legally give teens COVID-19 vaccines otherwise. In a May report, the nonprofit healthcare organization highlights that from a legal perspective, "the landscape may be shifting slightly as more jurisdictions seek to encourage vaccination of young people."
Meanwhile, as the Delta variant creates a new surge in cases, some ethicists and pediatricians argue that state laws should be amended or loosened to allow minors to consent to COVID-19 vaccination on their own, without the need for parental permission.
"COVID-19 has killed millions of people around the world and disrupted the global economy," says pediatrician John Lantos. "It's a global catastrophe that requires special rules."
There are compelling arguments in favor of letting minors consent on their own, says Robyn Shapiro, a health care lawyer and a bioethicist in the Milwaukee area. "By that, I mean they're either old enough or they're evaluated in such a way that they have sufficient understanding of what they're agreeing to."
Shapiro and other ethicists argue that teens are perfectly capable of giving "informed consent"—a key principle in ethics that means fully understanding the benefits and risks of a medical intervention. To give informed consent, a person must be able to process that information in line with their own values. Only then can they make an autonomous choice and sign a consent form, Shapiro says.
Most states already have laws permitting minors to consent to testing and treatments related to sexually transmitted diseases, birth control, behavioral health, and substance abuse. It wouldn't be that much of a stretch to add COVID-19 vaccination to the list, Shapiro says. New Jersey and New York have introduced bills to let teens as young as 14 to consent to getting the COVID-19 vaccine and Minnesota has proposed a bill to allow children as young as 12 to give consent.
With any medical test or intervention, doctors often wrestle with how to best involve teens in conversations about their own health care, says John Lantos, a pediatrician and director of the Bioethics Center at Children's Mercy Kansas City.
"Most bioethicists would say that [teens] should be included to the degree that they have decision-making capacity," he says. "In most cases, that means including them in discussions with their parents in trying to achieve consensus about what the best choice may be."
COVID-19 vaccination also presents a unique circumstance, Lantos notes. It raises the question: Should teens have greater decisional authority because it's a public health emergency? In his opinion, the answer is yes. "COVID-19 has killed millions of people around the world and disrupted the global economy," says pediatrician Lantos. "It's a global catastrophe that requires special rules."
In North Carolina, state legislators are moving to do the opposite. State law currently allows those under 18 to make vaccination decisions on their own, but on Aug. 5, North Carolina's General Assembly approved a Republican-sponsored bill requiring parental consent for 12- to 17-year-olds to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Kyle Brothers, a pediatrician in Louisville, Kentucky, says it's "ethically justifiable" for states to permit adolescents, especially those on the verge of adulthood, to consent to COVID-19 vaccination and other straightforward medical care.
In many cases, 16- and 17-year-old adolescents are capable of making well-informed decisions, says Brothers, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Section on Bioethics. "The problem is, the law tends not to have that level of nuance," he adds. "We know in the real world that maturing and developing the ability to make decisions is a continuous process, but the law sets a bright line at age 18."
Lacking parental consent, some defiant teens are researching avenues to get vaccinated without their mom's or dad's knowledge. They may have turned to VaxTeen.org, a site operated by a Los Angeles teenager that provides information on consent laws by state.
If parents are wavering on the decision to give consent, Breuner recommends that they speak with a trusted healthcare provider about their specific concerns. These kinds of dialogues often can clarify lingering worries and may help drive up consent rates for teen vaccination.
Vaccine-hesitant parents should hear out their teens who wish to be vaccinated. Teenagers have their own opinions and belief systems, and parents should respect their child's choice to be vaccinated if they wish, considering the minimal risk of harm and the significant benefit to society as a whole.
George J. Annas, professor and director at the Center for Health Law, Ethics & Human Rights at Boston University, says parents have a legal obligation to provide their children with necessary medical treatment, or they could be found guilty of child neglect. The circumstances vary, but in the face of unrelenting COVID-19, he says parents have an ethical duty to consent to teens' vaccination because "the disease is rampant and children are dying."
Becky Cummings had multiple reasons to get vaccinated against COVID-19 while tending to her firstborn, Clark, who arrived in September 2020 at 27 weeks.
The 29-year-old intensive care unit nurse in Greensboro, North Carolina, had witnessed the devastation day in and day out as the virus took its toll on the young and old. But when she was offered the vaccine, she hesitated, skeptical of its rapid emergency use authorization.
Exclusion of pregnant and lactating mothers from clinical trials fueled her concerns. Ultimately, though, she concluded the benefits of vaccination outweighed the risks of contracting the potentially deadly virus.
"Long story short," Cummings says, in December "I got vaccinated to protect myself, my family, my patients, and the general public."
At the time, Cummings remained on the fence about breastfeeding, citing a lack of evidence to support its safety after vaccination, so she pumped and stashed breast milk in the freezer. Her son is adjusting to life as a preemie, requiring mother's milk to be thickened with formula, but she's becoming comfortable with the idea of breastfeeding as more research suggests it's safe.
"If I could pop him on the boob," she says, "I would do it in a heartbeat."
Now, a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found "robust secretion" of specific antibodies in the breast milk of mothers who received a COVID-19 vaccine, indicating a potentially protective effect against infection in their infants.
The presence of antibodies in the breast milk, detectable as early as two weeks after vaccination, lasted for six weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
"We believe antibody secretion into breast milk will persist for much longer than six weeks, but we first wanted to prove any secretion at all after vaccination," says Ilan Youngster, the study's corresponding author and head of pediatric infectious diseases at Shamir Medical Center in Zerifin, Israel.
That's why the research team performed a preliminary analysis at six weeks. "We are still collecting samples from participants and hope to soon be able to comment about the duration of secretion."
As with other respiratory illnesses, such as influenza and pertussis, secretion of antibodies in breast milk confers protection from infection in infants. The researchers expect a similar immune response from the COVID-19 vaccine and are expecting the findings to spur an increase in vaccine acceptance among pregnant and lactating women.
A COVID-19 outbreak struck three families the research team followed in the study, resulting in at least one non-breastfed sibling developing symptomatic infection; however, none of the breastfed babies became ill. "This is obviously not empirical proof," Youngster acknowledges, "but still a nice anecdote."
Leaps.org inquired whether infants who derive antibodies only through breast milk are likely to have a lower immunity than infants whose mothers were vaccinated while they were in utero. In other words, is maternal transmission of antibodies stronger during pregnancy than during breastfeeding, or about the same?
"This is a different kind of transmission," Youngster explains. "When a woman is infected or vaccinated during pregnancy, some antibodies will be transferred through the placenta to the baby's bloodstream and be present for several months." But in the nursing mother, that protection occurs through local action. "We always recommend breastfeeding whenever possible, and, in this case, it might have added benefits."
A study published online in March found COVID-19 vaccination provided pregnant and lactating women with robust immune responses comparable to those experienced by their nonpregnant counterparts. The study, appearing in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, documented the presence of vaccine-generated antibodies in umbilical cord blood and breast milk after mothers had been vaccinated.
Natali Aziz, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Stanford University School of Medicine, notes that it's too early to draw firm conclusions about the reduction in COVID-19 infection rates among newborns of vaccinated mothers. Citing the two aforementioned research studies, she says it's biologically plausible that antibodies passed through the placenta and breast milk impart protective benefits. While thousands of pregnant and lactating women have been vaccinated against COVID-19, without incurring adverse outcomes, many are still wondering whether it's safe to breastfeed afterward.
It's important to bear in mind that pregnant women may develop more severe COVID-19 complications, which could lead to intubation or admittance to the intensive care unit. "We, in our practice, are supporting pregnant and breastfeeding patients to be vaccinated," says Aziz, who is also director of perinatal infectious diseases at Stanford Children's Health, which has been vaccinating new mothers and other hospitalized patients at discharge since late April.
Earlier in April, Huntington Hospital in Long Island, New York, began offering the COVID-19 vaccine to women after they gave birth. The hospital chose the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine for postpartum patients, so they wouldn't need to return for a second shot while acclimating to life with a newborn, says Mitchell Kramer, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology.
The hospital suspended the program when the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paused use of the J&J vaccine starting April 13, while investigating several reports of dangerous blood clots and low platelet counts among more than 7 million people in the United States who had received that vaccine.
In lifting the pause April 23, the agencies announced the vaccine's fact sheets will bear a warning of the heightened risk for a rare but serious blood clot disorder among women under age 50. As a result, Kramer says, "we will likely not be using the J&J vaccine for our postpartum population."
So, would it make sense to vaccinate infants when one for them eventually becomes available, not just their mothers? "In general, most of the time, infants do not have as good of an immune response to vaccines," says Jonathan Temte, associate dean for public health and community engagement at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.
"Many of our vaccines are held until children are six months of age. For example, the influenza vaccine starts at age six months, the measles vaccine typically starts one year of age, as do rubella and mumps. Immune response is typically not very good for viral illnesses in young infants under the age of six months."
So far, the FDA has granted emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children as young as 16 years old. The agency is considering data from Pfizer to lower that age limit to 12. Studies are also underway in children under age 12. Meanwhile, data from Moderna on 12-to 17-year-olds and from Pfizer on 12- to 15-year-olds have not been made public. (Pfizer announced at the end of March that its vaccine is 100 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 in the latter age group, and FDA authorization for this population is expected soon.)
"There will be step-wise progression to younger children, with infants and toddlers being the last ones tested," says James Campbell, a pediatric infectious diseases physician and head of maternal and child clinical studies at the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Vaccine Development.
"Once the data are analyzed for safety, tolerability, optimal dose and regimen, and immune responses," he adds, "they could be authorized and recommended and made available to American children." The data on younger children are not expected until the end of this year, with regulatory authorization possible in early 2022.
For now, Vonnie Cesar, a family nurse practitioner in Smyrna, Georgia, is aiming to persuade expectant and new mothers to get vaccinated. She has observed that patients in metro Atlanta seem more inclined than their rural counterparts.
To quell some of their skepticism and fears, Cesar, who also teaches nursing students, conceived a visual way to demonstrate the novel mechanism behind the COVID-19 vaccine technology. Holding a palm-size physical therapy ball outfitted with clear-colored push pins, she simulates the spiked protein of the coronavirus. Slime slathered at the gaps permeates areas around the spikes—a process similar to how our antibodies build immunity to the virus.
These conversations often lead hesitant patients to discuss vaccination with their husbands or partners. "The majority of people I'm speaking with," she says, "are coming to the conclusion that this is the right thing for me, this is the common good, and they want to make sure that they're here for their children."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the COVID-19 vaccines were granted emergency "approval." They have been granted emergency use authorization, not full FDA approval. We regret the error.
The highly anticipated rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine poses ethical considerations: When will trial volunteers who got a placebo be vaccinated? And how will this affect the data in those trials?
It's an issue that vaccine manufacturers and study investigators are wrestling with as the Food and Drug Administration is expected to grant emergency use authorization this weekend to a vaccine developed by Pfizer and the German company BioNTech. Another vaccine, produced by Moderna, is nearing approval in the United States.
The most vulnerable—health care workers and nursing home residents—are deemed eligible to receive the initial limited supply in accordance with priority recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
With health care workers constituting an estimated 20 percent of trial participants, this question also comes to the fore: "Is it now ethically imperative that we offer them the vaccine, those who have had placebo?" says William Schaffner, an infectious diseases physician at Vanderbilt University and an adviser to the CDC's immunization practices committee.
When a "gold-standard" measure becomes available, participants in the placebo group "would ordinarily be notified" of the strong public health recommendation to opt for immunization, says Johan Bester, interim assistant dean for biomedical science education and director of bioethics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine.
"If a treatment or prevention exists that we know works, it is unethical to withhold it from people who would benefit from it just to answer a research question." This moral principle poses a quandary for ethicists and physicians alike, as they ponder possible paths to proceed with vaccination amid ongoing trials. Rigorous trials are double-blinded—neither the participants nor the investigators know who received the actual vaccine and who got a dummy injection.
"The intent of these trials is to follow these folks for up to two years," says Marci Drees, infection prevention officer and hospital epidemiologist for ChristianaCare in Wilmington, Delaware. At a minimum, she adds, researchers would prefer to monitor participants for six months.
"You can still follow safety over a long-term period of time without actually continuing to have a placebo group for comparison."
But in the midst of a pandemic, that may not be feasible. Prolonged exposure to the highly contagious and lethal virus could have dire consequences.
To avoid compromising the integrity of the blinded data, "there are some potentially creative solutions," Drees says. For instance, trial participants could receive the opposite of what they initially got, whether it was the vaccine or the placebo.
One factor in this decision-making process depends on when a particular trial is slated to conclude. If that time is approaching, the risk of waiting would be lower than if the trial is only halfway in progress, says Eric Lofgren, an epidemiologist at Washington State University who has studied the impact of COVID-19 in jails and at in-person sporting events.
Sometimes a study concludes earlier than the projected completion date. "All clinical trials have a data and safety monitoring board that reviews the interim results," Lofgren says. The board may halt a trial after finding evidence of harm, or when a treatment or vaccine has proven to be "sufficiently good," rendering it unethical to deprive the placebo group of its benefits.
The initial months of a trial are most crucial for assessing a vaccine's safety. Differences between the trial groups would be illuminating if fewer individuals who got the active vaccine contracted the virus and developed symptoms when compared to the placebo recipients. After that point, in vaccine-administered participants, "you can still follow safety over a long-term period of time without actually continuing to have a placebo group for comparison," says Dial Hewlett Jr., medical director for disease control at the Westchester County Department of Health in New York.
Even outside of a trial, safety is paramount and any severe side effects that occur will be closely monitored and investigated through national reporting networks. For example, regulators in the U.K. are investigating several rare but serious allergic reactions to the Pfizer vaccine given on Tuesday. The FDA has asked Pfizer to track allergic reactions in its safety monitoring plan, and some experts are proposing that Pfizer conduct a separate study of the vaccine on people with a history of severe allergies.
As the FDA eventually grants authorization to multiple vaccines, more participants are likely to leave trials and opt to be vaccinated. It is important that enough participants choose to stay in ongoing trials, says Nicole Hassoun, professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she directs the Global Health Impact program to extend medical access to the poor.
She's hopeful that younger participants and individuals without underlying medical conditions will make that determination. But the departure of too many participants at high risk for the virus would make it more difficult to evaluate the vaccine's safety and efficacy in those populations, Hassoun says, while acknowledging, "We can't have the best of both worlds."
Once a safe and effective vaccine is approved in the United States, "it would not be ethically appropriate to do placebo trials to test new vaccines."
One solution would entail allowing health care workers to exit a trial after a vaccine is approved, even though this would result in "a conundrum when the next group of people are brought forward to get the vaccine—whether they're people age 65 and older or they're essential workers, or whoever they are," says Vanderbilt physician Schaffner, who is a former board member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. "All of a sudden, you'll have an erosion of the volunteers who are in the trial."
For now, one way or another, experts agree that current and subsequent trials should proceed. There is a compelling reason to identify additional vaccines with potentially greater effectiveness but with fewer side effects or less complex delivery methods that don't require storage at extremely low temperatures.
"Continuing with existing vaccine trials and starting others remains important," says Nir Eyal, professor and director of Rutgers University's Center for Population-Level Bioethics in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "We still need to tell how much proven vaccines block infections and how long their duration lasts. And populations around the world need vaccines that are easier to store and deliver, or simply cheaper."
But once a safe and effective vaccine is approved in the United States, "it would not be ethically appropriate to do placebo trials to test new vaccines," says bioethicist Bester at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine. "One possibility if a new vaccine emerges, is to test it against existing vaccines."
In a letter sent to trial volunteers in November, Pfizer and BioNTech committed to establishing "a process that would allow interested participants in the placebo group who meet the eligibility criteria for early access in their country to 'cross-over' to the vaccine group." The trial plans to continue monitoring all subjects regardless of whether people in the placebo group cross over, Pfizer said in a presentation to the FDA today. After Pfizer has collected six months of safety data, in April 2021, it plans to ask the FDA for full approval of the vaccine.
In the meantime, the company pledged to update volunteers as they obtain more input from regulatory authorities. "Thank you again for making a difference by being a part of this study," they wrote. "It is only through the efforts of volunteers like you that reaching this important milestone and developing a potential vaccine against COVID-19 is possible."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the FDA would be granting emergency "approval" to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, rather than "emergency use authorization." We regret the error.