Katelyn Evans, 16, has never met Randy Kerr—and there’s no reason she should have. It was 66 years ago that Kerr, then 6, became briefly famous, receiving the first injection of Jonas Salk’s experimental polio vaccine during the massive field trial of hundreds of thousands of children in the spring of 1954. History notes that the vaccine worked, and the children who stepped forward to receive either the actual shot or a placebo were heroically dubbed the Polio Pioneers.
Evans is a pioneer of the modern age, one of an eventual group of 600 children in the 16-to-17 year-old age group (along with 2,000 more between 12 and 15) to volunteer to be part of a Phase 3 trial to test an experimental COVID-19 vaccine made by the multinational pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. The company had already enrolled 42,113 adult volunteers in its Phase 2 and 3 trials, but only recently did the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) give approval to include children. And Evans, a high school junior in Cincinnati, was among the earliest, receiving her first of two injections on Oct. 14, at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
“She was the youngest one to receive the vaccine at that point in time,” says her mother, Laurie Evans, an elementary school teacher. In the spring, the family saw a news report that Pfizer was looking for volunteers and Evans and both of her children signed up. “Katelyn was the only one who got the call,” Laurie says. “I know from the response we’ve gotten that there are some people out there who don’t think this is the smartest thing for us to have done. But I’m more afraid of COVID than the vaccine.”
With good reason. The 8.8 million Americans who have contracted the disease include about 800,000 children, with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reporting a 13% increase in total pediatric cases in just the first two weeks of October. Children with COVID-19 may typically fare better than adults who catch the virus, but they can still become severely ill: some 3.6% of total U.S. COVID-19 patients who have had to be hospitalized have been children, according to the AAP. That reality makes volunteering for the Pfizer field trial more than an act of public-service heroism; it is also a potential act of preventive medicine.
Certainly, that’s the way Sharat Chandra saw things. Sharat was already part of the Pfizer adult trial and when word first went around that children would soon be included too, he and his wife discussed the possibility of enrolling their 12-year-old son Abhinav, and then posed the question to him.
“I raised it to my son and we felt that it might be a good thing for him because if he got the vaccine, it could protect him from getting the virus himself,” Sharat says. “Because he was attending school in person, we felt that it would be good to minimize his risk for infection, if we can.”
Abhinav Chandra participating in Pfizer’s