Britain is expanding its vaccination campaign to include 16- and 17-year-olds with no underlying health conditions on the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, an independent body responsible for advising its health departments.
At a news conference in London on Wednesday, Jonathan Van-Tam, Britain’s deputy chief medical officer, said the campaign would start in a “very short number of weeks” but he did not specify a date. He said officials would “proceed as fast as is practically possible.”
Under previous advice from the joint committee, the vaccine was made available to children 12 to 17 with underlying health conditions and increased risk of severe infection, or those living with an immunosuppressed person.
Across England, 244,223 people under 18 had received a first dose as of Aug. 4, according to National Health Service data.
In July, the joint committee had advised against the routine vaccination of children without underlying conditions, citing evidence that suggested vaccination would offer “minimal health benefits” for young people who rarely experienced severe virus symptoms. The committee said it was also awaiting further safety data following extremely rare reports of inflammation of the heart muscle with the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines in younger adults.
The new guidance balanced “potential benefits and harms” to young people, according to a joint committee member, Wei Shen Lim, including the frequency and severity of adverse reactions, and the impact of so-called long Covid which affected just a “small proportion” of young people and children.
Clinical trials also indicated the vaccine to be as safe with teenagers as it with adults, said June Raine, chief executive of Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only one currently authorized in Britain for children 12 and older, following a clinical trial in the United States that included around 1,000 children ages 12 to 15. It found that side effects in that group were short term and mild to moderate.
The move to include teenagers follows steps already taken by the United States, which began its first campaign to inoculate children 12 to 15 in May. Young people 16 and older became eligible for vaccination in most states in April.
The joint committee has not yet recommended vaccinating those younger than 16, though it is reviewing the latest data.
“There is time to go very patiently and carefully and there is time to go at the speed of science,” Professor Van-Tam said.