NIH launching study into coronavirus impacts on children

NIH launching study into coronavirus impacts on children
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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is launching a major study into the coronavirus's impacts on children in an effort to better understand how many children are infected and what impacts the virus has on their bodies.

Children seem to be less susceptible than older people to the most serious symptoms of the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, though they are no less likely to contract the virus itself. 

But at least some children suffer severe symptoms, and in recent weeks hospitals around the world have described a condition they call pediatric inflammatory multisystem syndrome in dozens or hundreds of children.

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Understanding how children contract the disease is also important in understanding whether and how they can pass it on to family members, something experts want to understand as local governments decide whether and how to reopen schools in the late summer or early fall.

The NIH study will enroll 6,000 people from 2,000 families that are already involved in other NIH-funded pediatric research, the institute said in a statement announcing the program. It will follow those children for six months, testing them and their family members every two weeks to determine whether they have contracted the virus and whether they have passed it on to siblings, parents or grandparents.

Tina Hartert, the study's lead and director of the Center for Asthma and Environmental Sciences Research, said the broader testing would give a clearer picture of how many children across the country are infected with the virus. Because children are less likely to show severe symptoms, they are less likely to interact with the health care system and to be tested.

“So far, data on the extent of SARS-CoV-2 infection in the U.S. population have been limited to people who physically interact with the healthcare system: those who are tested ― especially those who test positive ― and those with severe disease,” Hartert said in a statement, referring to the coronavirus by its scientific designation. That data, she said, doesn't “enable us to understand the full extent of SARS-CoV-2 infection in the entire population.”

Though the pace of scientific understanding about the coronavirus has grown at unprecedented levels in recent months, many of the early studies have raised more questions than provided answers. Early on in the outbreak, public health experts recommended school closures as a way to stop the spread of the virus, an effective tool for stopping influenza.

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“With influenza, we know that kids are significant drivers of transmission and so closing schools is a well-established tool for a flu pandemic,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.

“That's been the presumption here as well, and on the face of it schools would seem to tick a lot of concerning boxes — enclosed spaces, crowded rooms, difficult to distance, prolonged contact,” he said. “But if kids are less susceptible and transmit less, those things become potentially easier to mitigate.”

Billions of children around the world have been sent home from school as countries try to mitigate the spread of the virus. In the United States, that has caused substantial problems for groups like health care workers, about one in five of whom have a school-aged child at home, and for low-income households for whom schools are a significant provider of free and low-cost meals.

“Kids play a huge role in whether you can safely reopen schools and day cares, and that in turn has huge workforce, economic, and social welfare implications,” Konyndyk said.

The data still shows children are less likely to suffer the worst outcomes of the coronavirus. In New York, where more than 26,000 people have died of COVID-19, just three were under the age of 9, and eight were between the ages of 10 and 19. In New Jersey, none of the 8,807 people who have died have been under 18 years old, according to state data.

Though people with underlying conditions are more susceptible to serious outcomes caused by COVID-19, early research shows that those with asthma and allergies may actually be less susceptible to severe COVID-19 outcomes. A study funded by the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease suggests that may have to do with a gene the coronavirus uses to infect cells.