Teens volunteer for vaccine trials to get in on real-life science experiments.


To get out of ninth-grade science period one recent Friday, the King twins had an excuse that is so very 2021.

Alexandra and Isabelle, 14, had to miss class — including a test — because they were going to a Houston clinic to participate in an actual science experiment: a clinical trial of Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine to evaluate whether the shot is effective and safe in children ages 12 through 17.

Teenagers contract the novel coronavirus almost twice as often as younger children but vaccines authorized in the United States are mostly for adults — Moderna’s for 18 and older, Pfizer’s for 16 and up. While teenagers don’t become severely ill from the virus as often as adults, research suggests that because they are often asymptomatic and casual about social distancing, they can be efficient spreaders — to one another as well as to adults like parents, grandparents and teachers. Although vaccinating educators will be an important factor in keeping schools open, vaccinating students will also be a key element.

Bottom line: If widespread immunity to the coronavirus is to be achieved, adolescents are critical links. They need a Covid vaccine that works for them.

Although the novel coronavirus has had far less impact on children than older adults, some 2.2 million pediatric cases in the United States have been reported and about 280 children have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And like an enemy occupation, the pandemic has taken over most children’s lives — shutting down in-person school, sports, socializing. That has prompted some teenagers, who otherwise feel so powerless, to fight back by volunteering for vaccine trials.

Sam, 12, who entered the Pfizer trial at Cincinnati Children’s hospital, said he wanted to participate “because it would be helping science and beat the pandemic. And it was my way of saying thank you to the frontline workers who are keeping us healthy.”

His sister, Audrey, 14, who is also in the study, said, “I thought this would be a really good story I could tell my children and grandchildren — that I tried to help create the vaccine.”

“And I also thought it is important to have people of different ages and races represented,” added Audrey, who, like her brother, is Asian. (Their mother, Rachel, a nurse researcher who volunteered for a vaccine trial, asked that their last names be withheld for privacy reasons.)

Like most trial volunteers, children worry about side effects. Sure enough, after Sam got the second dose from Cincinnati Children’s hospital, he had a rough go of it.

In the middle of the night he woke with a throbbing headache. Then chills, a low-grade fever, muscle aches.

“He looked miserable,” said his mother, Rachel. “It’s one thing to talk theoretically about side effects but it was hard as a mom to see him feeling really bad.”

She felt guilty for having encouraged him to participate. “I’m so sorry,” she said.

Sam was mystified by her reaction. “I’m so happy,” he replied. “This means I got the real thing!”

Audrey, his sister, felt fine after her dose. “I’m jealous,” she said.


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