March 19, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 105—COVID vaccines for kids, and long haulers

As millions of people receive COVID-19 vaccines, one group is not included: children. Currently, no available COVID-19 vaccines are authorized for use in children younger than 16. But since the pandemic struck, Indiana University Bloomington virologist John Patton and his lab team have been working on a COVID-19 vaccine for young children, based on a well-established vaccine for the common childhood illness rotavirus. By reverse-engineering the rotavirus genome, the research team generated stable recombinant rotaviruses that contain portions of the coronavirus’s spike protein. This discovery could lead to a combined rotavirus-COVID-19 vaccine that is capable of protecting against not only rotavirus but also COVID-19. Such a combined rotavirus-COVID-19 vaccine would be a huge step forward, the researchers say, because it could leverage rotavirus immunization programs already in place for infants and young children around the world. And although children make up only a fraction of COVID-19 infections and deaths, they may be asymptomatic carriers of the disease. A vaccine for young children may also allow schools to open up more freely, enabling activities that involve close contact. The IU team is now working to determine how successful the combined rotavirus-COVID-19 vaccine is at producing the desired immune system response. Meanwhile, their current results underscore the potential of a combined vaccine becoming a routine immunization for children in the not-too-distant future.

In addition to vaccines, scientists are also studying people who have had COVID-19 but still suffer from its aftereffects. In a new study that sheds light on the lasting health impacts of COVID-19, a research team including IU School of Medicine research professor Natalie Lambert studied the records of more than 1400 California patients who were infected with, but never hospitalized for, COVID-19. Studies of people with milder infections are crucial, the researchers say, to fully understand the public health impact of COVID-19. The research team found that being asymptomatic at the onset of COVID-19 was the biggest predictor for becoming a so-called “long hauler” and that women were more likely to become long haulers. More than 60 days after infection, the researchers say, 27 percent of the people studied still struggled with symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, cough, or abdominal pain. The study identified more than 30 symptoms experienced by long haulers, including altered sense of taste, chills, insomnia, anxiety, sore throat, and headache, among others. Lambert notes that some long-hauler symptoms show up much later than two months, too. Overall, the long-term consequences of becoming a long hauler remain unclear. That’s why the research team says studies are urgently needed that focus on the physical, mental, and emotional impact of long-term COVID-19 on survivors who become long-haulers.