Young People at 'Low Risk' of Severe Illness and Death from COVID-19 

Peter Russell

July 09, 2021

The risk of severe illness and mortality from SARS-CoV-2 is extremely low in children and teenagers, an analysis of public health data has concluded.

However, developing COVID-19 increased the risk of serious illness in vulnerable young people and those with pre-existing medical conditions and severe disabilities, researchers said.

The preliminary findings, published in three pre-print studies, could inform vaccine and shielding policies for people under 18, researchers said.

"We found that the risks of severe illness or death in children and young people from SARS-CoV-2 are extremely low," said Prof Russell Viner, senior author of two of the studies.

'A Clear Estimate'

"These are the first data to really and precisely – from a large population – give us clear estimates of those risks," Prof Viner from University College London Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health told a briefing hosted by the Science Media Centre.

However, none of the studies examined the impact of long COVID.

In brief:

  • One study, published on medRxiv, found that 251 young people aged under 18 in England were admitted to intensive care with COVID up until the end of February 2021, and 91% of them had an underlying condition or comorbidity. The researchers, from University College London, estimated people in this age category had a 1 in 50,000 chance of being admitted to intensive care with COVID during the first year of the pandemic. Looking separately at the rare inflammatory syndrome, Paediatric Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome (PIMS-TS) caused by COVID, the researchers found that 309 young people were admitted to intensive care with this condition – equating to an absolute risk of 1 in 38,911.

  • A second linked study, published on ResearchSquare, and led by the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, found that 25 children and young people in England had died as a result of COVID from March 2020 to February 2021, equating to an absolute risk of death of 1 in 481,000, or approximately 2 in a million.

  • A third preprint study, led by the University of Liverpool, found that young people with cardiac or neurological conditions, and those who were obese, were more at risk of mortality from COVID, in line with risk factors for adults.

Prof Viner said: "We did find that for some vulnerable groups, risk was higher, and quite a bit higher, but it's really important to say that, for example, twice a tiny risk, a very tiny risk, is still a very, very tiny risk."

'Reassuring' Data

Dr Elizabeth Whittaker, from Imperial College London, commented: "It is reassuring that these findings reflect our clinical experience in hospital – we see very few seriously unwell children.

"Although this data covers up to February 2021, this hasn’t changed recently with the Delta variant."

The studies, that have yet to be peer-reviewed, will be submitted to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, the Department for Health and Social Care, and the World Health Organisation, to inform vaccine and shielding policy for children and young people under 18.


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