Covid19 and children
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30 Jun 2021
While scientists have done a lot of research on the life cycle, pathogenesis, epidemiological profile and other aspects of the SARS-Cov2 virus which causes Covid19, the emergence of newer mutants that exhibit variation in these traits continue to pose novel challenges for scientists and healthcare services alike. One thing that has been common to all observed strains so far has been the increased susceptibility of higher age groups to the infection, and to potentially more severe disease. More importantly, it has been observed that certain people have exceptionally high resistance to the virus, and younger age groups, such as those below the age of 18 years, are less susceptible to infection and subsequently developing a symptomatic infection. However, recent media coverage has pointed out that there may be new strains of the virus emerging that target the immune systems of younger age groups, especially children specifically.
What makes children less susceptible to Covid19 is the way their immune systems work. Specifically speaking, the immune systems of young children (above the age of 2 years) are especially good at identifying, responding to and eliminating new pathogens as most infectious agents that children in these age groups are exposed to are new to their immune systems. This is also why vaccination of children at a young age is so important, and why it is so effective. As people age, this ability gradually diminishes with time. Since the SARS-Cov2 virus is new to everyone’s immune systems, children’s immune systems fare better at identifying and fighting it off than older individuals. This also means that even if a child does get infected, they may not develop an infection with clinical symptoms, and thus may not be able to spread the infection to other individuals. An asymptomatic patient is also less likely to develop a severe infection in the long run, and thus require hospitalisation or intensive care.
There is scientific evidence that points to other factors as well, such as the lower expression of the ACE-2 and other cell surface genes in children, which may subsequently interfere with the virus’ ability to infect their cells. These genes are mostly expressed in the nasopharynx areas, which is where most respiratory bacteria and viruses invade the body. These factors, coupled with nutritional status, exposure, hygiene, concomitant infections and genetic variations play a huge role in determining the possibility of and the course of disease in a given individual.
However, as certain recent reports have claimed, there are new strains emerging in certain South East Asian countries such as Singapore, which may have developed mutations that allow them to bypass these additional defences that children possess altogether. In fact, there have been claims that these mutants attack the immune systems of children more aggressively and are likely to carry with them a greater morbidity and mortality rate. While such reports may need verification from scientific authorities until these claims may be acknowledged as legitimate, theoretically, such a mutant may exist. Such a strain would exhibit greater aggressiveness, or mutate in a way that would allow it to target different cell surface receptors and proteins altogether. It may also be able to evade the immune system altogether as certain pathogens do, and thus increase its chances of causing severe infection. This may be a cause for concern too, as such changes require major changes to the genome of the virus, and may in the long run affect the effectiveness of the vaccines and treatments currently available to us.
While further research may reveal new information and teach us new things about this virus, it may help to be cautious and anticipate and proactively work against such threats before they transform into severe problems, such as another future wave of the pandemic. There may also be a silver lining to all this, as mutations often expose new vulnerabilities in the virus’ makeup and thus offer newer opportunities for treatments and therapies that may help us beat this disease once and for all.
Dr. Divyanshu Rungta
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