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10 June 2021updated 30 Jun 2021 10:32am

Are new Covid variants more harmful to children?

The evidence suggests that the Delta and Gamma variants are more dangerous for everyone, including young people.

By Stuart Ritchie

Here’s one of the many paradoxes of the Covid pandemic: although the virus has dramatically worse effects on older people, a lot of the loudest public and scientific debates have been focused on children.

The main one has been about education, and the very real learning loss that children experienced by missing school during the lockdowns. A hugely acrimonious debate swirled around school closures, with some researchers seemingly so concerned about children’s education that they forgot that children can carry the virus, and could help prolong the epidemic by mixing with their classmates and bringing infections home to their older relatives.

Every so often, though, a different kind of concern pops up: people suddenly become worried that, although the virus didn’t do much physical harm to children before, it does now.

This was a big issue when the Alpha (British) variant of the coronavirus first emerged: some scientists speculated that it might be more dangerous to children than the previous strain. Then, in January, a nurse told the media that her hospital had a “whole ward of children” with Covid, causing quite a panic on social media and elsewhere. Regardless of whether there was such a ward, the overall numbers didn’t show that it was a general phenomenon: as the evidence came in, it became clear that the Alpha variant didn’t lead to more severe disease in children than the older, “wild-type” variant.

[See also: How sewage testing can help tackle the spread of Covid-19]

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Now, as we face yet another ominous growth in Covid cases in the UK, the claims about dangers to children are back. First, Humza Yousaf, the health secretary for Scotland, had to apologise last week after stating – while trying to deter Scots from travelling between different parts of the country with their children – that there were ten children under nine years old in hospital “because of COVID”. It turned out that those children did indeed test positive for coronavirus, but that they might have been hospitalised for something entirely different.

Yousaf’s fumbled figures aside, we do have other evidence that children are at higher risk. In the US, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that hospitalisation rates among adolescents had increased across the spring of 2021. And an article in the New York Times described the recent, frightening uptick in children with severe COVID in Brazil.

Does this imply that a new variant – such as the Brazilian Gamma strain – is more dangerous to children in particular? Gamma is, after all, becoming more common in the US as well as in Brazil itself.

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Not necessarily. Both the CDC paper and the report from Brazil note a slightly more prosaic – but no less worrying – explanation: it’s not that these variants are worse for children specifically, it’s just that they’re worse for everyone, and their prevalence is increasing.

[See also: Did Covid-19 escape from a Wuhan lab? Here’s what we know]

If these new variants – in our case in the UK it’s the Indian, Delta variant – are more easily transmissible, and if they have a higher chance of causing severe Covid, it’s no wonder we’re seeing more cases in children. After all, the schools have been back for some time, and we’re seeing increasing classroom outbreaks.

In fact, we might expect to see a growing number of cases in youngsters because of our great success in vaccinating older people: now that so many of them are protected with a double-dose, the only people left to infect are those who can’t yet get vaccinated – for the most part, younger people.

More cases will, as ever, lead eventually to more hospitalisations and deaths, although we should expect a lower fatality rate this time around, again because of the younger population who are being infected.

The UK numbers already look grim. A third wave of cases is on the way. There are no new, exciting, or counterintuitive solutions: we need to do more of what we’ve been doing, but even faster than before. A brief pause to the full reopening, originally planned for 21 June, will help slow the growth and give us a chance to vaccinate even more, even younger people.

If reopening is paused, we should be using everything we’ve learned from the pandemic so far to encourage higher vaccination rates: lotteries, discounts, and free products might help; making it easy to get to the vaccine centre is a big part of the battle; and it seems that simply telling people how many of their peers are getting vaccinated can encourage them to get the jab themselves.

And perhaps there’s a less positive incentive, too. The slower we are to reach herd immunity – the point at which enough people are vaccinated that transmission is stopped in its tracks – the more people will get infected and die. It’s a straightforward calculation, and with the spread of the Delta variant in schools, we know that many of the victims of the next wave will be young people – even without a special child-killing virus. If that doesn’t shake you out of your “Covid-is-over” complacency – a complacency I myself was feeling until just a few days ago – nothing will.

[See also: China’s Covid cover up]

This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web