Doctor and researcher Jay M. Lieberman shares why he agreed to let his 12-year-old twin daughters participate in Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine trial, and why he’s confident the vaccine is safe for kids.
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When Moderna began recruiting 12- to 17-year-old participants for its COVID-19 vaccine trial this year, Dr. Jay M. Lieberman, medical director at PRA Health Sciences, enrolled his 12-year-old twin daughters.
“[My] wife and I saw it as an opportunity to get them vaccinated against COVID-19. The vaccine was not yet available to that age group. We first talked about it in January when cases were still extremely high in the U.S., so the opportunity to get them vaccinated was the biggest draw,” Lieberman told Healthline.
He knew that as two of the 3,235 participants in the trial, his daughters would either receive the standard two-shot adult dose or a placebo. They also underwent nasal swabs and blood draws.
“[My daughters] are fully informed and got to ask questions, and they understood that this was a choice they have, that we were not going to force them to do it… they did it and I’m very proud of them for that,” Lieberman said.
When it became clear that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was on the verge of authorizing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for use in 12- to 15-year-olds, Lieberman asked Moderna to “unblind” his girls, or say which study group they were in, so that if they had received the placebo instead of the vaccine, they could get vaccinated.
Because one daughter experienced a mild reaction after the second dose during the trial, including arm soreness and chills, Lieberman believes she received the vaccine. However, he thought his other daughter received the placebo because she didn’t experience any symptoms.
“We were thrilled to learn that they both had been vaccinated… and protected since late February, early March, and that’s exciting and reassuring, and it also tells something about the side effects profile in teens,” Lieberman said.
In addition to potentially getting vaccinated, both Lieberman and his wife, who is a hospital pharmacist, also felt their daughters’ participation in the trial could contribute to the advancement of science.
“Obviously, clinical trials need people to participate, so we saw it in a small way as a service,” Lieberman said.
The couple also felt their daughters would benefit from understanding what clinical research involves and how science advances.
“We’ve talked a lot about COVID, and how they’re going to tell their children and grandchildren about the pandemic. This is part of their story. I think they’ll look back at some point with pride that they played, admittingly, a very small role in how we dealt with and [found] a path to solving the pandemic,” Lieberman said.
By the time Lieberman’s daughters enrolled in the study, the mRNA vaccine had already been given to tens of millions of adults.
“I follow the information carefully, and so I was confident that they would be protected if they got the vaccine,” Lieberman said.
He admits he was a little concerned about common side effects, such as sore arm, chills, headaches, and tiredness. However, he knew if his girls experienced these, they would be short term.
“The misconception some people have is that long-term studies are needed to learn about late side effects, and for vaccines there is no such thing. There has never been a vaccine that we didn’t learn until 2 or 5 or 10 years later that there was some late effect. It doesn’t happen. The effects are seen in the time post-vaccination,” Lieberman said.
This may differ from medications, which are taken over a period of time.
“It’s not a single or two single doses, so there can be cumulative effects of drugs that may show up later. But again, the primary reason for longer studies and follow-up of a new vaccine or new drug that is licensed is to learn of the rare side effects, and how well [the vaccine] works, and what the real safety profile is when you’re using it in the real world,” Lieberman explained.
While it’s understandable for parents to be hesitant to vaccinate their child, experts share some insight.
The FDA authorized its use and the CDC recommends it
The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was approved based on reviews of the evidence of the vaccine and its effectiveness in 12- to 15-year-olds.
“In the early studies, the vaccine appears to be very effective at preventing COVID-19 in teens, even more effective than it is in adults. It also appears to be just as safe, with no serious side effects related to the vaccine among the 1,100 teens who got the vaccine in the study reviewed by the FDA,” Dr. Douglas Diekema, attending physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, told Healthline.
While it’s rare, kids can still become ill from COVID-19
While children and teenagers might not transmit the virus as easily as adults or develop serious illness as often as older adults and those with underlying health conditions, Sarah Lynch, PharmD, clinical assistant professor of pharmacy practice and the director of skills education at Binghamton University, said there are documented cases of children and adolescents falling seriously ill and dying from COVID-19.
“We are also still not fully aware of the long-term implications of COVID-19 infection,” Lynch told Healthline.
Additionally, virus variants are cause for concern.
“This risk increases with increasing viral circulation: Every time the virus spreads to another individual and replicates, there is another chance for a mutation, which may result in a variant that the current vaccines cannot prevent. The more individuals that are vaccinated, including children and adolescents, the less transmission we will see, which will help prevent some of these variants from arising,” Lynch said.
Lieberman added that children have been making up a larger percentage of COVID-19 cases with the emergence of variants that seem more transmissible.
“[There] is more disease in this age population and as there is more disease, there are more children who do develop serious disease,” he said.
The more people vaccinated, the broader immunity becomes
Every person who gets vaccinated is another break in the potential chain of transmission.
“[And] so everybody who gets vaccinated helps protect others: the people around them, the people they love, the people they spend time with,” Lieberman said.
The more people who become protected, the more everyone can get back to their pre-pandemic lives.
“The vaccine is now a means to get our teens safely back to where they should be, doing what they should be doing. They should be in middle school and high school. They should be on the playing field and at dance studios, they should be hanging out with their friends, and the vaccine is our path forward,” Lieberman said.
Talk with your pediatrician
If you or your child have questions about the vaccine, talk with your pediatrician or primary care doctor.
Lynch suggested encouraging children to seek out their own science-based information.
“Teach them about good resources for healthcare information. For example, the CDC website is a great resource for facts and answers to common questions about the vaccine. Social media can have good information, but it can also have inaccurate information as well,” she said.
Once you have accurate information, Diekema recommends talking openly about the vaccine with your child.
“Most kids 12 and above are capable of pretty high-level conversations. They have already been talking to their friends and families about COVID-19 and about the vaccine, so most of them are not naïve,” he said.
Like adults, kids will want to know why they should get the vaccine and whether anything negative can happen.
“I would tell them that the benefit of getting the vaccine is that they are less likely to get sick from COVID and being vaccinated will allow them to more quickly get together with their friends, see their grandparents, and do the things they want to do (like getting back to sports, concerts, camps, etc.),” Diekema said.
Inform them about potential side effects, such as sore arm, tiredness, and headache.
“Being honest is really important with this age group, and they should be given the opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns. The conversation should be tailored to the individual child. Return to sports is only important for athletes, for example,” Diekema said.