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New Reports on Virus in Kids Fuel Uncertainty on Schools

By Jason Gale and Thomas Mulier | April 30, 2020, 6:30 AM CDT Updated on 

Children with the new coronavirus may be as infectious as adults, according to a study from Germany that stoked confusion over kids’ role in the pandemic.

Levels of virus in the respiratory tract — the main route via which the pathogen is transmitted — don’t appear significantly different across age groups, Christian Drosten, director of the Institute of Virology at Berlin’s Charite hospital, and colleagues found. They advised caution in reopening schools and kindergartens.

The findings add to a contradictory body of work over children’s response to Covid-19 and the role they play in its spread, with another report showing kids aren’t passing the virus to adults. The World Health Organization said Wednesday more research was needed on the topic.

“All we really know at this point is that with a small number of exceptions, children are mildly affected by this infection,” said Adam Finn, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Bristol and chairman of the WHO’s European Technical Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization. “What is much less clear is how often they get infection and how infectious they are to each other and to other people in their families.”

Children Don’t Pass Covid-19 to Adults, Report Indicates

For now, household transmission studies indicate that children are less likely to transmit Covid-19 to adults than the reverse, WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove told reporters in Geneva Wednesday.

Such observations may be “misunderstood as an indication of children being less infectious,” Drosten and colleagues said. They cautioned “against an unlimited reopening of schools and kindergartens in the present situation.”

Less Coughing

The most detailed pediatric data on Covid-19 from China showed 13% of confirmed cases had no symptoms, and when confirmed and suspected cases were combined, almost a third of children ages 6 to 10 years were asymptomatic.

It’s possible that because children typically get milder cases of Covid-19, they are less likely to spread the virus via coughing and sneezing, said Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emergencies program.

While scientists have speculated about why few children get severely ill from Covid-19, no studies have explained the exact mechanism of this protective effect.

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