U.K. Authorizes Covid Vaccinations for 12- to 15-Year-Olds

U.K. Authorizes Covid Vaccinations for 12- to 15-Year-Olds

Health officials in the United Kingdom authorized a mass Covid vaccination program for 12- to 15-year-olds on Monday, amid widespread concern that Covid-19 cases would increase as students returned to school after the summer break.

The approval, announced by the chief medical officers of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, ended weeks of uncertainty and came despite reservations from some medical experts about whether vaccinations would benefit the age group significantly. The governments of the four countries are now expected to launch campaigns to promote the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The campaigns are expected to be part of an address given by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday, in which he will outline a strategy to prevent a new surge in Covid infections from overwhelming the national health service during a winter when seasonal flu could add new strains. His priority is to protect the country without imposing the kind of severe lockdown restrictions that were imposed during earlier stages of the pandemic.

Those aged 16 and up, as well as younger children with health conditions that put them at risk, are already eligible for vaccination. However, otherwise healthy young people face only a minor risk of serious illness from the coronavirus, prompting a debate about the ethics of vaccinating children to contain a virus that primarily affects adults.

As a result — and much to the chagrin of government ministers — Britain has lagged behind other countries, including the United States, in vaccinating children aged 12 to 15.

The authorizations announced on Monday were framed primarily as a means of reducing the disruption caused by outbreaks in schools. Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, stated that school closures and remote learning were “extraordinarily difficult for children and had a significant impact on health,” including mental health. He did admit, however, that the decision to vaccinate children was a more difficult one than the decision to vaccinate older people.

The debate over extending vaccines to 12- to 15-year-olds exposed schisms in the medical and scientific communities in the United Kingdom. Earlier this month, Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization stated that a mass vaccination campaign would provide only marginal benefits to those in the age group. It expressed concern about a rare side effect of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which has occasionally resulted in heart inflammations, palpitations, and chest pains.

“The margin of benefit, primarily from a health standpoint, is considered too small to support advice on a universal vaccination program for otherwise healthy 12- to 15-year-old children at this time,” the committee concluded.

However, the health ministers of the four United Kingdom nations reacted by seeking advice from their chief medical officers, who considered both “educational impacts” and health concerns.

Britain has recently averaged around 35,000 new coronavirus cases per day, one of the highest rates in Europe in relation to population. Two-thirds of the population has been fully immunized. Ministers in the government are bracing for another surge in cases as schools reopen and the weather worsens in the fall and winter.

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U.K. Authorizes Covid Vaccinations for 12- to 15-Year-Olds