Opinion: The importance of boosters for teens

Benjamin Grimes, Opinion Editor

Student receiving shot
A Palo Alto High School student receives a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccine supplier Pfizer-BioNTech plans to apply for regulatory approval for a COVID-19 booster vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds amid growing concern over the Omicron variant. The World Health Organization warned that the global risk posed by the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus was “very high.” (Photo: Alex Franklin)

For many of us, this holiday season will be filled with a sense of normalcy. With families reuniting, it’s no doubt that this winter will be better than last year’s, when COVID-19 was at its apex and we were confined at home. 

But we aren’t in the clear yet. This coming season brings the fear of a winter surge, as more families plan to travel and cold weather forces people inside. The emergence of the Delta and newly discovered Omicron variant, which looks to be much more contagious, threatens the safety of not just adults, but also teens. We need to ensure this time it doesn’t turn into a disaster, and the answer lies in COVID-19 booster shots. 

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged COVID-19 booster shots for all adults, strengthening its previous recommendation of only adults 50 and up.  Only urging shots for people over 18 leaves out a crucial group — young adults — but it looks like that’s about to change. Pfizer-BioNTech is expected to apply for regulatory approval for a COVID-19 booster vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds. 

This decision comes at precisely the right time.

A study of almost 800,000 veterans testing the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines over time found dramatic drops in vaccine efficacy. Over a six-month period, the Moderna vaccine dropped to 58% percent effectiveness from 89 percent, Pfizer-BioNTech to 45% from 87 percent, and Johnson & Johnson with a shocking drop to only 13% effectiveness from 86 percent. But by far the most important takeaway from this study is that the decline in vaccine efficacy did not differ by age — from age 18 all the way to 65 plus, vaccine efficacy waned. This brings up a potential issue about the largely unresearched group of people under 18. 

We’ve long known that people under 18 have faired much better against COVID-19 than other age groups — the result of a stronger immune system. But if vaccines have such drastic effects for adults, it should be expected that vaccine efficacy in teens would diminish as well. This gets even more dangerous when considering the new Delta variant. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, with the Delta variant, there has been a “significant increase in COVID-19 cases amongst people under 18 years of age.” 

Early vaccination pushes from the United States helped combat the virus early on, but it also means our vaccines have had ample time to lose effectiveness. Among minors, 38 percent of 16- to 17-year-olds and 25 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds were fully vaccinated as of July 14, meaning a large number of teens have waning protection from the virus as the 6-month mark rolls up. 

The solution to combating this decreased vaccine efficacy and new variants during the holidays season clearly lies in booster shots; as boosters, which target one of the original strains of the virus, still work extremely well against Delta and, we hope, Omicron. 

Given that teens are much more susceptible to Delta and have waning immunity, it’s going to be of utmost importance that booster shots are authorized for them. 

A randomized study from Pfizer of 10,000 people over the age of 16 found that booster shots showed 95 percent protection against infection in those who didn’t have evidence of a previous infection, with little to no side effects. 

More evidence comes from Israel, where a study of 700,000 people with booster shots found an 81 percent effectiveness against COVID-19-related deaths and 93 percent effectiveness against hospitalization. 

The evidence is clear — booster shots are effective. If we want to avoid a holiday winter surge, it’s going to be of the utmost importance that those eligible for boosters get boosters. But beyond that, it’s going to be increasingly urgent to ensure that teens get the booster shots they deserve. Every day, more and more teens lose their immunity to COVID-19, and with Omicron and Delta thrown in it becomes more and more dangerous considering large group gatherings among teens in schools are commonplace.

If we want to keep the holiday season safe, we need to ensure the safety of our younger constituents. It’s time that we look into providing boosters for these teens.

Then perhaps we can get to work on boosters for freshmen and sophomores.