As the new COVID-19 variant discovered in the United Kingdom spreads waves of concern across the world, a specific worry is that it may make children more susceptible to the virus - a group believed to be at lesser risk of infection until now.
So far, there is no evidence or data to support the claim that the variant would spread more easily in children. But scientists are urgently investigating the link as this could alter the virus’ course and make the pandemic a tougher battle to fight.
The concern was expressed by members of the government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats advisory group (Nervtag). According to a BBC report, if this claim has some weight to it, it could account for a ‘significant proportion’ of the increase in transmission, researchers have said.
Prof Wendy Barclay, from Nervtag and Imperial College London, said the mutations could be putting children on a ‘more level playing field’ with adults as the virus was ‘less uninhibited' in this group.
“Therefore children are equally susceptible, perhaps, to this virus as adults, and therefore given their mixing patterns, you would expect to see more children being infected.”Prof Wendy Barclay
Health Secretary Matt Hancock cautioned that the variant was ‘out of control’, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the new variant ‘may be up to 70 percent more transmissible’.
Prof Neil Ferguson from the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, also associated with Nervtag, has also said that early analysis of how the variant is spreading has given ‘hints that it has a higher propensity to infect children’, reported the BBC.
“If it were true, then this might explain a significant proportion, maybe even the majority, of the transmission increase seen.”Prof Neil Ferguson
However, any such link is yet to be proven and researchers are working to urgently investigate it.
Scientists are still divided on the possibility. Prof Julian Hiscox, chair in infection and global health, from the University of Liverpool, reiterated to the BBC that at the present moment, there was no evidence that the new variant is impacting children more efficiently. Similarly, experts in COG-UK, the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium that detected the prevalence of the variant, have also said that they were not aware of any increased incidence in kids.
If such an association is found to be true, it would have huge implications for policy decisions, schools reopening and the rate of transmission among the population.
Notably, the vaccines that are slowly being rolled out will not be covering children yet as data from this age-group is yet to be collected in trials. It would be a while, therefore, before kids get access to the protection provided by COVID vaccines which have received emergency use authorisation in their respective countries.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said, "We want, if we possibly can, to get schools back in a staggered way at the beginning of January, in the way that we have set out. But obviously the common sensical thing to do is to follow the path of the epidemic and, as we showed last Saturday, to keep things under constant review."
(With inputs from BBC)