Inside story

As UK virus variant spreads, the kids will be all right, but you might not be

Schools closing as highly contagious strain more likely to spread among children, who will then pass it to adults — but there’s no evidence it will make kids any sicker

Nathan Jeffay

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A family walks in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on December 27, 2020. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)
A family walks in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on December 27, 2020. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)

Even before the government decided on tightening the national lockdown this week, some areas in the country were shutting schools on their own, over fears surrounding the fast-spreading new coronavirus mutation.

While children are indeed more likely to be infected by the new strain than the original SARS-CoV-2, doctors insist that there is no evidence showing it is more harmful to them, or anyone else who catches it.

The so-called British variant of the coronavirus has already caused life in England to grind to a halt, with a new national lockdown announced Monday. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government took the step because the variant, confirmed on December 19 and estimated as 50 percent to 70% more transmissible than regular COVID, spreads in a “frustrating and alarming” manner.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly cited the new strain as a reason behind the surge in cases that led his government to tighten its existing nationwide lockdown, closing schools and most businesses starting Friday.

“The mutation is out of control, and here, too, we see a rise,” Netanyahu said, according to Hebrew media. “The hospitals are warning that we are entering the most dangerous wave since the start of the pandemic and that if we don’t act immediately, we’ll lose many more people.” Defense Minister Benny Gantz reportedly also blamed the mutation.

Workers disinfect a classroom at the Gymnasia Rehavia high school in Jerusalem on June 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A military task force confirmed on Sunday that the new strain is spreading in Israel, urging stricter restrictions and a complete shutdown of the education system.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash reportedly told ministers that 30 people with the strain had managed to infect 189.

Many of them may have been children, who appear to be more susceptible to catching and spreading the mutated virus than they were to the original strain, according to British researchers.

“We know that SARS-CoV-2, as it emerged as a virus, was not as efficient in infecting children as it was adults,” said Imperial College virologist Prof. Wendy Barclay last month, suggesting that the new variant may “put children on a more level playing field.”

Illustrative: Children at a kindergarten in Tel Aviv return from a two month coronavirus lockdown on May 10, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Most kids who carry the coronavirus are either asymptomatic or develop only light symptoms of COVID-19. Doctors believe that is true for the new variant as well, though Israeli officials fear that children who get it will more easily spread it at home to unvaccinated adults, potentially intensifying the third wave of the virus.

“The coronavirus usually causes only mild disease, or passes without symptoms, in children,” said Prof. Galia Grisaru-Soen, director of the pediatric infectious diseases department at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. “And from what we know at the moment, it seems that this British strain isn’t any more severe.”

There is also no evidence it has a more severe effect on adults, she said.

Israeli medics are closely watching the situation in the UK, where the new strain has been circulating for weeks, to get a glimpse of what may be on the horizon here.

Even with the new strain “the overwhelming majority of children and young people have no symptoms or very mild illness only,” said Prof. Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, according to the BBC.

“The new variant appears to affect all ages and, as yet, we are not seeing any greater severity amongst children and young people,” he said.

Johnson also noted while announcing England’s school closure that “children are still very unlikely to be severely affected by even the new variant of COVID.”

“The problem is that schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households,” he said.

Grisaru-Soen said the concern of greater transmissibility among children stems from environmental factors, not biological ones: It is highly contagious for both children and adults, but kids packed into classrooms create the ripest conditions for its spread.

“Children tend to be more crowded than adults, which means that when we’re talking about a more transmissible strain, it may well be spreading more quickly among children than the regular strain,” Grisaru-Soen told The Times of Israel. “This doesn’t mean it’s more contagious among children, just that it’s more contagious in general and children are more crowded in kindergartens, classrooms and elsewhere.”

David Greenberg, head of pediatrics and the pediatric infectious diseases unit at Soroka University Medical Center (courtesy of David Greenberg)

But David Greenberg, head of pediatrics and the pediatric infectious diseases unit at Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba, expressed a minority view that the British strain could turn out to hit kids harder.

“The fact it’s more infectious indicates it’s more adapted to humans,” he said. “It’s better at getting in to the body, and in a similar sense, it may also cause more illness.”

Though there is no specific research to back up his fears, he noted that the pandemic has been characterized by unpredictability and urged doctors to prepare for the possibility.

There is no vaccine that has been approved for children, and an outbreak of serious cases could swiftly push pediatric units beyond capacity, he warned.

He also said he supported shutting schools and kindergartens, saying it’s the only responsible path given the rise in cases nationally and concerns related to the British variant.

Israeli students arrive at school in the southern city of Ashdod, November 29, 2020 (Flash90)

The two experts, who spoke to The Times of Israel shortly before the government’s new lockdown-tightening decisions, disagreed on whether Israel’s education system should be closed.

However, Grisaru-Soen said she believed schools should stay open, albeit with precautions. “I don’t suggest closing schools, definitely not,” she said.

Upperclassmen preparing for their bagrut matriculation exams should be moved to the front of line for the coronavirus vaccine, which is only approved for those 16 and up, along with educational staff, Grisaru-Soen suggested.

“For this age group, studies and school are so important to their future, their lives, and to their mental health,” she said. “They should be given priority for vaccinations.”

Both experts spoke to The Times of Israel shortly before the government’s new lockdown-tightening decisions, which include school closure, were made.

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