Australian children aged from five to 11 are now eligible for the Pfizer Covid vaccine, after the Therapeutic Goods Administration granted approval for its use.
The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, has insisted there will be sufficient supply, despite claims from GPs they will struggle to inoculate children ahead of the return to school in February.
Hunt has claimed there will be 3m vaccine doses available over January for the 2.3 million children who will be eligible for a jab, but opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, said parents were anxious because they could not get appointments.
Hunt conceded that as there are 8,000 vaccination points around the country, each will have a limited number of doses a day, and therefore not every child will be able to get the jab right out of the gate. This was to make sure people in rural and regional areas, non-English-speaking areas and lower socioeconomic areas have the same access.
But the head of the Commonwealth’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout, Lieutenant General John Frewen, said there were “absolutely more than enough” doses to get all eligible children vaccinated with their first dose before they go back to school.
Frewen urged parents to have “a little bit of patience” and to shop around – checking pharmacies, GPs, and state clinics – to ensure they can book their child in.
Where can children get vaccinated?
Most state-run vaccine clinics, some GPs, and some pharmacies are administering Pfizer doses for the 5-11 age group.
You can find a vaccine clinic at a GP or pharmacy through this link.
Bookings for state-run vaccine hubs can be found on state and territory government websites. Here is Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, the ACT and Tasmania.
How does the Pfizer vaccine differ for children?
The Pfizer vaccine will be given to children aged five to 11 in two injections, at an interval of eight weeks apart. Each jab will contain 10 micrograms of the Covid vaccine, one third of the dose given to those aged 12 and older.
To avoid mix-ups, the vaccine in 5 to 11-year-olds will be dispensed from vials with orange caps, instead of the purple or grey used in other age groups.
Dr Vinod Balasubramaniam, a virologist at Monash University Malaysia, said in a statement to the Australian Science Media Centre: “The formula of the vaccine also varies slightly from the formula for adults. Pfizer’s vaccine for kids can be stored up to 10 weeks in a fridge, making it easier to administer.
“The needle used to administer the vaccine will also be smaller.”
Are other countries vaccinating children against Covid?
Many countries are already vaccinating younger children. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration authorised Pfizer’s Covid vaccine for use in 5 to 11-year-olds at the end of October. More than 1.2 million American children have been fully vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and 4.7 million have received their first dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Authorities in Israel and Canada also authorised the Pfizer vaccine for use in children aged 5 to 11, while the European Medicines Agency recommended that the Pfizer vaccine be approved for the same age group.
China, Cambodia and Chile have been vaccinating children with Sinovac for months. Cuba is immunising children aged two to 10 with locally developed Covid vaccines, while India’s Covaxin vaccine has been approved for people aged two to 18.
Is the Pfizer vaccine safe in children?
Clinical trials of the Pfizer vaccine in more than 2,000 children aged five to 11 showed it was “safe, well tolerated and showed robust neutralising antibody responses”, Pfizer reported in September.
Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor at the Australian National University, said while published data from the US rollout in children was not yet available, anecdotally there had been no reports of serious adverse effects. “There aren’t any … alarm bells or red flags,” Senanayake said.
Dr Nusrat Homaira, a paediatric respiratory epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales, said there have been no reports to date of myocarditis associated with the Pfizer vaccine in 5 to 11-year-olds. “That’s very good news. It seems that it’s relatively safe in that population,” she said.
Rare cases of myocarditis have previously been reported in older age groups – in adolescents and young adults – after receiving mRNA vaccines. However, Israeli research has found the risk of developing myocarditis was significantly higher in people who had contracted Covid-19 than for those who received the vaccine.
In September, data published by the CDC showed that for people aged 16 and younger, those who got Covid had 37 times the risk for developing myocarditis than those who were not infected.
The timing of Australia’s vaccination program in children would allow for experts to review published results from rollouts internationally, Senanayake said, adding that any side effects would likely become apparent within six weeks of vaccinations commencing. “If we start on January 10 in Australia we will be very well placed.”
What are the risks of Covid in kids?
“Overall, the data we have so far suggests that Covid, thankfully, is a milder disease in children,” Homaira said. However, some children have been hospitalised, admitted to intensive care, put on ventilators, and in rare cases died from the disease.
“The other aspect of Covid that seems to be unique to kids is multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which occurs in around one in 3,000 children [following Covid infection],” Senanayake said.
The condition, also known as paediatric inflammatory multisystem syndrome, commonly results in fevers and gastrointestinal symptoms, and in serious cases can lead to organ failure.
Emerging data from South Africa on the Omicron variant suggested more children under 18 were getting infected and presenting to hospitals, Homaira said, emphasising that direct comparison between countries is difficult due to differences in health systems, vaccination coverage and background infection rates. “These are very early days,” she said.
“At this point it is suggested that Omicron is much more transmissible,” Homaira said. “Whether it’s severe or not, that we still don’t know.”
“Given Omicron … we are now in a stage where we should be rolling out the vaccine for the paediatric population.”