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FactCheck: Misinformation about WHO’s COVID-19 vaccine guidance for children

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FactCheck: Misinformation about WHO’s COVID-19 vaccine guidance for children

  • Jernej Furman | CC BY 2.0

The World Health Organization said the English version of its COVID-19 advice page for the public was updated on June 22 to reflect more recent interim recommendations that WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts released June 15.

Importantly, WHO’s updated guidance said that its advisory group “has concluded that the Pfizer/BionTech vaccine is suitable for use by people aged 12 years and above.”

As of June 25, the page stated:

WHO COVID-19 Vaccines Advice page, June 25: 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.

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 against COVID-19.

The WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) has concluded that the Pfizer/BionTech vaccine is suitable for use by people aged 12 years and above. Children aged between 12 and 15 who are at high risk may be offered this vaccine alongside other priority groups for vaccination. Vaccine trials for children are ongoing and WHO will update its recommendations when the evidence or epidemiological situation warrants a change in policy.

So, the WHO says the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine may be used for children 12 and up. And out of concern for countries where the vaccine supply is still very low — not concern about the safety of the vaccine — the WHO recommends the shots be prioritized for individuals age 12 to 15 who are at high risk for COVID-19, specifically. For the other available COVID-19 vaccines, the WHO says more information is needed before it can recommend their use for children and adolescents.

But the WHO’s seven-day delay in posting the update caused confusion online.

Some social media posts falsely claimed that “WHO is now recommending that children DO NOT get the COVID-19 vaccine,” and that the WHO said “stop giving kids the vaxx immediately.”

Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene also tweeted June 22, “The WHO says ‘children should not be vaccinated.'”

Such claims were based on outdated guidance that was still on the WHO’s English advice page before it was updated June 22.

As of at least June 21, that page said:

WHO COVID-19 Vaccines Advice page, June 21:

Children should not be vaccinated for the moment.

There is not yet enough evidence on the use of vaccines against COVID-19 in children to make recommendations for children to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Children and adolescents tend to have milder disease compared to adults. However, children should continue to have the recommended childhood vaccines.”

That led at least one website to misleadingly report: “The World Health Organization (WHO) published revised advice on June 21, 2021, clarifying which populations should receive COVID-19 vaccines. The WHO’s website now states, ‘Children should not be vaccinated for the moment.'”

That wasn’t new guidance, as that story suggested. That language had been used on the page since at least early April, according to archived versions of the page.

In North America, it wasn’t until May 5 that Canada authorized the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in children 12 to 15 years of age. Then the U.S. Food and Drug Administration followed with its own expanded authorization of the vaccine for that age group on May 10. (Canada and the U.S. had previously authorized use of the vaccine for people 16 and older in December 2020.)

The Strategic Advisory Group of Experts met May 27 to propose recommendations to the WHO on the use of COVID-19 vaccines, and SAGE’s interim guidance on the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines was released June 15.

As it relates to vaccines for children, the guidance documents for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines advise against use for individuals under age 18, as more information on those vaccines’ safety and efficacy in children is still needed.

However, the guidance document for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, or BNT162b2, said:

WHO interim guidance on the Pfizer–BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, June 15: For children and adolescents COVID-19 is rarely severe. Evidence suggests that adolescents, particularly older adolescents, are as likely to transmit SARS-CoV-2 as adults. WHO recommends that countries should consider using BNT162b2 in children aged 12 to 15 only when high vaccine coverage with 2 doses has been achieved in the high priority groups as identified in the WHO Prioritization Roadmap.

Children 12-15 years of age with comorbidities that put them at significantly higher risk of serious COVID-19 disease, alongside other high-risk groups, may be offered vaccination.

There are currently no efficacy or safety data for children below the age of 12 years. Until such data are available, individuals below 12 years of age should not be routinely vaccinated.

But those recommendations weren’t added to the WHO’s advice page until June 22, after social media posts based on the out-of-date guidance went viral.

So far, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is the only COVID-19 immunization authorized for children 12 and older in the U.S., although Moderna completed a trial and submitted its application for this age group to the Food and Drug Administration on June 10. Both companies are conducting additional trials in younger children as well.

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