Wells: Mitch wrote in asking about COVID and pregnancy. His wife works in a rehab hospital that takes COVID-positive patients, and he says they’re expecting to get the vaccine in the next couple of weeks. His wife is very ready to get it, but she’s nursing. Assuming she is allowed to get it, what could be the possible risks?
Zhang: We let pregnant and nursing women get flu vaccines and other vaccines. There’s no reason to think that there’s any particular risk. The FDA has said pregnant and nursing women can get it. They are kind of being extra super conservative, because no pregnant women were in the clinical trials. But just given what we know about how vaccines work, there’s no reason to think that it will be particularly dangerous for them. And there is data to suggest that the risk of COVID-19 when you’re pregnant is higher.
Hamblin: Amanda asks: “How long will it be before kids can be vaccinated? Were kids included in these trials?”
Zhang: No. Kids as young as 12 are currently in clinical trials for Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines, but they were not included in these the first clinical trials.
Wells: And why weren’t they? Is that typical?
Zhang: Yeah, they usually start with adults. And then if it’s safe in adults, you go down to kids. I would maybe not expect kids to get vaccinated in the next year. It depends on how old the kids are. I think for those under 12: definitely not. Teens: possibly.
We just don’t actually have the data on how well the vaccine works in kids. It probably will work given how well it’s working right now—but the other consideration, of course, is making sure that it’s safe in kids, and the side effects are well tolerated.
Wells: We just talked about how we don’t have the data for pregnant women, but [for them] we think the benefits outweigh the risks. What’s different?
Zhang: The [COVID] risks to kids are just so much lower than for adults that I think we want to make sure the benefits are very, very, very clear before we start giving [the vaccine] to kids.
Wells: Got it—so it’s because kids have generally not really gotten that sick. Maybe something that would help give a little context for all of these answers is understanding a little bit more about how the vaccine actually works. We had a question from Nathan, who said: “I’m wondering if you would be able to discuss the technology behind the BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, what it means for the future of vaccines, and what it means for a future treatment of other diseases. I have been shocked speaking to learned friends who’ve stated they will not take the vaccine for a number of reasons, including fear of the new technology.”
Zhang: These are mRNA vaccines. And yeah, we’ve never had mRNA vaccines approved before—but we’ve had years and years of research going into mRNA vaccines, which is part of the reason we haven’t actually been able to get them out so quickly. It really builds on years and years of scientists in the lab trying to figure out really minute details about how to make sure RNA does or doesn’t elicit the right immune response.