Scientists and medical professionals across the country are working to learn about the coronavirus’ effect on children. There's still a lot they don't know about how the virus affects children.
With children often not showing as many symptoms as adults, experts say kids can help us learn more about the novel coronavirus. Dr. Beth Thielen, a pediatric infectious disease physician and professor at the University of Minnesota, says people could be looking to children, especially as they go back to school, to find out more about the coronavirus.
"I mean, I hope so. I think this provides a very rich opportunity to understand a lot of basic things about the immune system and why diseases manifest differently in adults and children," says Dr. Thielen.
Dr. Thielen says, from possible protective measures of the MMR vaccine in children to t-cells, there's so much people can learn from how children's bodies combat viruses.
"It is thought that t-cells play a substantial role in helping to clear viral infections from the lungs. There are people looking at t-cell responses but they've lagged a bit behind with the data coming out on t-cell responses (that) hasn’t been as prominent as the antibody studies," says Dr. Thielen. She adds that the reason people are looking at t-cells and children is because t-cells decline with age.
"I think they are critical. We all have them, they work to protect us from infection and potentially they are more efficacious in younger people potentially. Although, I think that really hasn’t been clearly worked out for SARS COV2," says Dr. Thielen.
Dr. Jay Varkey, an epidemiologist at Emory Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, agrees. Dr. Varkey says scientists are also looking into why children older than 10 years old are more likely to have more serious symptoms with COVID-19.
"I think the reasons for that are complex. I think part of that might be related to some sort of existing t-cell immunity, and to what that is whether that’s to memory cells that are acting against a previous seasonal coronavirus that would just cause cold like symptoms, or whether it's related to something more complex -- I don't think we’re there in terms of understanding," says Dr. Varkey.
Dr. Varkey says, while children can help us understand COVID-19 better, it's also up to the adults to make sure they're growing up in a healthy, safe environment.
"We will learn much from kids, but one of the messages we’ve been emphasizing in the hospital is that if we, again – and I answer this both not just as an infectious disease physician but also as a parent to two school age kids – we as adults have a responsibility to try and make our community safe to actually allow in-person learning," says Dr. Varkey.
"I think that we often think of children as getting a lot of these infections and the fact of the matter is most adults are getting exposed, as well, but our immune systems are sort of experienced at seeing them and we don't get sick," says Dr. Thielen.
Dr. Thielen is a member of the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society and says she and other doctors in their scientific groups are advocating for more pediatric research to truly understand how certain diseases, including COVID-19, behave in children.