The tiny Communist and Caribbean nation of Cuba has become the first in the world to start administering Covid vaccines to children as young as two years old. That is even as many, including India, are yet to roll out vaccines for adolescents. Children and adolescents can get Covid-19 and a rising number of cases are being reported in the younger demographic, but they are also found to have only a mild illness and are not seen as a vulnerable group for Covid-19. However, as countries look to put the pandemic behind by achieving herd immunity, vaccinating younger populations has emerged as the next inoculation goal.
What Vaccine Is Cuba Using For Toddlers?
There are two homegrown vaccines that Cuba has rolled out for use among children and adolescents — Soberana-2 and Abdala. Reports said that the country’s drugs watchdog, the Medicines Regulatory Agency (Cecmed) last week announced it had okayed the emergency use of the Soberana-2 vaccine for children in the 2-18 years age group. Soberana-2 is a two-dose vaccine. Abdala, a three-dose jab, is being given to adults.
What Kind Of Vaccines Are These?
All the vaccines indigenously developed by Cuba are protein subunit vaccines. These vaccines do not contain any parts of the novel coronavirus but only its surface spike protein, which it uses to invade human cells. The recombinant technology on which the two Cuban shots are based — it’s similar to the vaccine being made by US-based Novavax, which Serum Institute of India is licensed to produce in India — involves extracting the genetic information for the spike protein and then inserting it into bacteria or yeast cells and then harvesting the spikes to create the vaccine.
Since these vaccines use only a fragment of the virus, they are considered very safe. However, that also means they are unable to create long-lasting immunity of the kind possible with vaccines that contain an inactivated or weakened form of the virus. Which is why protein subunit vaccines require follow-up booster doses and may be administered along with an adjuvant, which is any substance administered with the vaccine to “create a stronger immune response".
The Cuban vaccines have been cleared by its domestic drugs regulator but not by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Neither has the efficacy — said to be at over 90 per cent for both — and safety data for these vaccines been published in any peer-reviewed journal.
Why Is Cuba Racing Ahead To Vaccinate Kids?
In three months, it will be two years of living with the novel coronavirus and the socio-economic toll of the pandemic is now telling heavily on countries. Cuba is now grappling with a big surge in cases and has been adding more than 6,000 cases daily since the middle of July. Towards the end of August, the daily case count had shot up to more than 9,000 but it is hovering now at around 7,000 cases. Viewed in terms of cases per million people, the count in the country of 11.3 million people is among the highest in the world.
Announcing the roll-out of vaccines for kids, Cuban authorities had said that they intend to ensure that they are aiming to now vaccinate at least 90 per cent of the population. The country’s vibrant tourism industry has taken a beating due to Covid-19 and it is striving to tamp down on the surge caused by the Delta variant before the beginning of the tourist season in November, reports said.
Another factor behind vaccinating children is the need to reopen schools. Access to internet is not widespread in Cuba and, with schools closed for over a year, classes have been held via TV. The country said it would allow children back into schools for the new session, but only after they have been inoculated.
Should Children Get Vaccinated Against Covid-19?
It is a question that has experts divided everywhere. Children are seen as being more resilient against the novel coronavirus than adults, mostly getting mild or asymptomatic infection. A study done across seven countries and published in medical journal Lancet said that less than two out of every million children died with Covid during the pandemic.
But more than ensuring protection for the children themselves, the need to vaccinate them is seen through the prism of achieving herd immunity and ensuring that they do not pass on an infection to older and more vulnerable people.
But the WHO has stressed on the need for ensuring access to vaccines for the most vulnerable people around the globe and for frontline workers, saying that children should not be prioritised at the cost of those who most need to be inoculated.
“Children and adolescents tend to have milder disease compared to adults, so unless they are part of a group at higher risk of severe Covid-19, it is less urgent to vaccinate them than older people, those with chronic health conditions and health workers," WHO says in its vaccine advisory, which was updated in mid-July.
While noting that its experts have okayed the Pfizer-BionTech vaccine for use by people aged 12 years and above, it said that “more evidence is needed on the use of the different Covid-19 vaccines in children to be able to make general recommendations on vaccinating children".
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been linked to rare occurrences of myocarditis and pericarditis, which affect the heart, but cases have been more common in younger men after a second dose. The European Medicines Agency said the frequency of such cases ranges between one-to-two cases per million people who received the vaccine and everybody made a full recovery.
What Are Other Countries Doing?
Several countries around the world have started vaccinating adolescents but none that is known to be giving shots to children as young as two years.
The likes of France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy are administering doses to children above 12 while the US is also asking the 12+ population to get jabbed.
India has not opened vaccination for those below 18 years of age but Zydus Cadila and Bharat Biotech are conducting trials of their shots among children. The Centre had told Delhi High Court in July that a vaccine for the 12-18 age group would be available before long and that a policy was being formulated for the purpose.