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UK approves Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine in children aged 12 to 15

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The Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine is already being rolled out in younger age groups in the US

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The UK has approved the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for use in children aged 12 to 15.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) authorised the use of the jab in this younger age group following a review of its safety, quality and effectiveness.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was the first to be authorised for use in the UK at the end of last year.

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“We have carefully reviewed clinical trial data in children aged 12 to 15 years and have concluded that the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine is safe and effective in this age group and that the benefits of this vaccine outweigh any risk,” said June Raine, chief executive of the MHRA.

The UK government has asked the independent experts at the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to advise whether routine vaccination should be offered to people aged 12 to 17, a spokesperson for the UK health department said.

The announcement comes as a laboratory study by Emma Wall at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and her colleagues reports that adults who have had the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine have lower antibody levels targeting the delta variant of the coronavirus than those against previously circulating variants in the UK. The research also suggests that levels of these antibodies are lower with increasing age, and that these decline over time.

However, levels of antibodies alone don’t predict vaccine effectiveness and prospective population studies are also needed. Lower levels of neutralising antibodies, those that are able to block the virus from entering cells, may still be associated with protection against covid-19, the researchers say.

“These data cannot tell us whether the vaccine will be any less effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalisation and death; we need to wait for the actual data on these outcomes,” said Eleanor Riley at the University of Edinburgh, UK, who wasn’t involved with the study.

The delta variant is now believed to be dominant in the UK, with early evidence suggesting it may lead to an increased risk of being admitted to hospital compared with the alpha variant.

Wall and her team analysed antibodies in the blood of 250 healthy people who received either one or two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, up to three months after their first dose. They tested the levels of neutralising antibodies against five different variants – the original strain from China, the dominant strain in Europe during the first wave in April 2020 and the alpha, beta and delta variants.

In people who had received two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, levels of neutralising antibodies were more than five times lower against the delta variant when compared with the original strain, on which current vaccines are based.

This antibody response was even lower in people who had only received one dose. After a single dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, 79 per cent of people had a quantifiable neutralising antibody response against the original strain, but this fell to 50 per cent for the alpha variant, 32 per cent for delta and 25 per cent for beta.

Researchers say this evidence supports current plans to reduce the dose gap between vaccines, and also plans to deliver a booster to vulnerable people in the autumn.

“The most important thing is to ensure that vaccine protection remains high enough to keep as many people out of hospital as possible. And our results suggest that the best way to do this is to quickly deliver second doses and provide boosters to those whose immunity may not be high enough against these new variants,” said Wall.

Journal reference: The Lancet, DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(21)01290-3

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