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Kids may eventually be more at risk of contracting COVID-19 than adults, study finds

Researchers say young children will become more susceptible to the virus over time

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Photo (c) Images By Tang Ming Tung - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Penn State University explored what COVID-19 infections will look like for consumers in the coming years. 

Their findings suggest that kids may become the most at-risk demographic for contracting the virus over the next decade as adult exposure and vaccinations increase. The researchers predict that COVID-19 could become an infection similar to the common cold and will likely peak during certain seasons. 

“Following infection by SARS-CoV-2, there has been a clear signature of increasingly severe outcomes and fatality with age,” said researcher Ottar Bjornstad. “Yet, our modeling results suggest that the risk of infection will likely shift to younger children as the adult community becomes immune either through vaccination or exposure to the virus.

“Historical records of respiratory diseases indicate that age-incidence patterns during virgin epidemics can be very different from endemic circulation,” Bjornstad said. “For example, ongoing genomic work suggests that the 1889-1890 pandemic, sometimes known as the Asiatic or Russian flu -- which killed one million people, primarily adults over age 70 -- may have been caused by the emergence of HCoV-OC43 virus, which is now an endemic, mild repeat-infecting cold virus affecting mostly children ages 7-12 months old.” 

What will the future look like?

For the study, the researchers developed a “realistic age-structured (RAS) mathematical model” to determine what COVID-19 infections may look like as the virus becomes endemic. They looked at factors such as duration of disease-reducing immunity, demographics, and socializing patterns. They focused on what these outcomes will look like over 1, 10, and 20 years in 11 different countries, including the U.S., China, Italy, and Spain. 

Ultimately, the model showed that children are more likely than adults to be infected by the coronavirus over the next decade. 

“For many infections and respiratory diseases, prevalence in the population surges during a virgin epidemic but then recedes in a diminishing wave pattern as the spread of the infection unfolds over time toward an endemic equilibrium,” said researcher Ruiyun Li. 

“Depending on immunity and demography, our RAS model supports this observed trajectory; it predicts a strikingly different age structure at the start of the COVID-19 epidemic compared to the eventual endemic situation. In a scenario of long-lasting immunity, either permanent or at least 10 years, the young are predicted to have the highest rates of infection as older individuals are protected from new infections by prior infection.” 

Planning for what’s ahead

The researchers explained that their predictions depend on how consumers’ bodies respond to reinfection; as long as re-exposure leads to mild infections, the virus shouldn’t pose a significant threat to adults’ health long term. 

Moving forward, the team hopes that this model can be helpful for countries making important public health decisions.  

“The mathematical framework we built is flexible and can help in tailoring mitigation strategies for countries worldwide with varying demographics and social mixing patterns, thus providing a critical tool for policy decision making,” said Bjornstad. 

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