School reopenings safe as children pose minimal COVID-19 risk

A specialist in paediatrics and vaccinology from Oxford University has explained that children are at minimal risk of either suffering symptoms or spreading COVID-19 and that the full reopening of schools in September is both safe and necessary.

Writing in the Guardian, Dr Matthew Snape, Associate Professor of Paediatrics and Vaccinology at the Oxford Vaccine Group in Oxford University’s Department of Paediatrics, refers to a recent study from Public Health England (PHE) showing that children and teenagers are at minimal risk of COVID-19.

Youngsters below the age of 16, the study shows, represented just 1% of positive cases of COVID-19 during England’s viral pandemic.

The study found that of 35,200 tests administered to under-16s in England, 15-year-olds were more likely to be positive but totalled only 1,408, approximately 4%.

This compared with a positive test result for adults of between 19.1% and 34.9%.

Taking all age groups, under-16s as a whole accounted for just 1.1% of positive test results.

The study’s authors, writing in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, state: “Sars-CoV-2 positivity was low even in children with acute respiratory infection. Our findings provide further evidence against the role of children in infection and transmission of Sars-CoV-2.”

The authors speculate that children may have fewer ACE2 protein receptors (to which the virus is thought to bind) than adults.

Professor Snape writes: “This makes one thing clear: reopening schools after the summer break does not represent a significant Covid-19 risk to children and teenagers themselves.

“What is also clear is that, as the recent difficulties around A-level results have highlighted, the near complete shutdown of school in March, during the early stages of the pandemic, meant that children and young people have been disproportionately affected by the lockdown relative to their risk of disease.”

He notes that the PHE study also found that many, probably most, COVID-19 infections among children produced no symptoms and that even symptomatic children were far less prone to shedding the virus than adults.

In an ongoing antibody study conducted by Professor Snape’s team at Oxford, researchers found that while one in 25 healthy youngsters aged 0-19 years had experienced a COVID-19 infection (4%), less than a third of them developed any respiratory or flu-like symptoms.

This means that a chance does exist that some pupils returning to school will unknowingly be infected with the virus, but the risks of transmission are very low and do not warrant continued or repeat lockdowns.

Professor Snape believes that the damage sustained by children’s education during the school closures was far more harmful than any damage to them or to others in contact with them by the coronavirus.

He explains that being infected is not equivalent to being infective, as the example of Sweden demonstrates.

Under-16s were able to attend school throughout the pandemic but infection rates among their teachers were no greater (and were often less) than for other occupational groups.

The young do not appear to be efficient spreaders of the virus, Professor Snape concludes.

Professor Snape concedes that there is no perfect solution to the problems posed by the pandemic, but the opening of schools in the UK, given the tiny illness and transmission risk among school-aged children, “must be a priority for the coming academic year”.

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