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  • New research suggests that COVID-19 could become as prevalent as the common cold and would affect mostly children in the future.
  • This is because children would have no immunity either through vaccination or exposure to the virus.
  • The viral disease could become seasonal and affect mainly younger children similar to other common childhood diseases.

Up until recently, COVID-19 has primarily taken a major toll on adults compared to children. But new research suggests that as the SARS-CoV-2 virus becomes endemic across the world, COVID-19 could become as prevalent as the common cold and would affect mostly children who wouldn’t have been vaccinated or exposed to the virus yet.

While this sounds frightening the researchers clarify that children are far less likely to have severe symptoms related to COVID-19. As a result, the overall effects of the disease will be lessened.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances this month.

Researchers from both the United States and Norway developed a mathematical model to look at how COVID-19 cases could affect different age groups in the future.

Using their model, they studied demography, social mixing, and duration of infection-blocking and disease-reducing immunity to analyze potential future scenarios for age and mortality for COVID-19.

This predictive modeling “can be very helpful to those in government and public health who are responsible for identifying the future impact of SARS CoV-2 and the resources that will be needed to manage it,” said Dr. Michael Grosso, chief medical officer and chair, pediatrics, Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital.

“It was the conclusion of these researchers that COVID-19 will do what other epidemic respiratory viruses have done in the past, which is to transition to a routine, seasonal infection, and involve young children more than others,” Grosso said.

The researchers drew on previous studies and experience with similar coronaviruses and modeling across many different countries and age groups, which allowed the researchers to predict what COVID-19 could look like in one, 10 and 20 years.

If the predictions of the model are correct, most adults in the future will already be immune because of vaccinations or exposure.

“It was the conclusion of these researchers that COVID-19 will do what other epidemic respiratory viruses have done in the past, which is to transition to a routine, seasonal infection and involve young children more than others,” said Grosso.

But this study is looking at what will happen in the future. Right now the disease is still impacting both adults and children with serious consequences. The United States has approximately 48 million children under the age of 12, who are too young to be vaccinated.

Children currently make up 2.4 percent of the nation’s COVID-19 hospitalization cases, but that number continues to grow. According to Reuters, 1,900 children are hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Saturday, Aug. 14.

No one can predict the future and there is no fool-proof prediction model. Experts say the study is interesting, but that getting vaccinated and social distancing is key to staying healthy right now.

“It’s really too early to tell in terms of whether the cyclical nature of this virus is going to translate to kids,” said Dr. Eric Cioe-Peña, director of global health at Northwell Health. “There is lots of evidence that kids are much less affected by the COVID infection, at least with the alpha variant. It’s a bit of a jump to say it will move to a childhood illness. It is theoretically possible, but I think it’s remote.”

Grosso said that this is a mathematical model and that no model is perfect.

“We will probably need to prepare for a range of possibilities, depending on the future behavior of the virus, and of humans,” Grosso said. “As the pandemic has shown us, both humans and viruses, that is, can be unpredictable. Time and more data will tell.”

Currently, studies are underway to see if children under 12 benefit from COVID-19 vaccinations. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may give an Emergency Use Authorization for young children some time this fall if the evidence finds that it is effective.

“The FDA is really looking for extremely rare side effects to make sure that when they say it is approved, they really mean it,” said Cioe-Peña. “I think we’re being too cautious. Delta presents a real risk to children. The risk/benefit of the vaccine is that the benefit outweighs any risk.”

As of August 15, nearly 51 percent of Americans have been vaccinated, but experts say it’s still not enough.

And now, as the United States is talking about opening up a third booster shot to the immunocompromised, it’s important to note that the best way to keep everyone safe is for more people to get vaccinated. Because while the researchers’ model is making predictions for the future, that doesn’t change the current crises we are still living through.

“The vaccine is still very effective against preventing hospitalization and death,” Cioe-Peña said. “I just want people to be cautious. We need to use vaccine resources widely, and that will prevent this from becoming a childhood illness.”