The general consensus on children and the novel coronavirus is that they neither play as large a role in spreading it as adults, nor do they contract the disease as often.
But new research says children younger than 5 years old can hoard up to 100 times more of the virus in their noses than older children and adults, suggesting kids could be a significant driver of viral spread.
The researchers said understanding transmission potential in children could help guide public health decisions surrounding school and daycare reopenings scheduled to occur in the coming weeks.
The study was published Thursday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
“Our study was not designed to prove that younger children spread COVID-19 as much as adults, but it is a possibility,” study lead author Dr. Taylor Heald-Sargent, pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, said in a news release. “We need to take that into account in efforts to reduce transmission as we continue to learn more about this virus.”
The researchers say school closures early in the pandemic prevented “larger-scale investigations of schools as a source of community transmission.” Now, the new study fills some gaps about the potential for younger children to be major coronavirus carriers.
Between March 23 and April 27, the team collected nasal swabs from 145 patients with mild to moderate COVID-19 cases during the first week of their symptoms. Samples were gathered at inpatient, outpatient, emergency department and drive-through testing sites at a medical center in Chicago, according to the study.
They compared “viral load” in three age groups: children younger than 5 years, kids between 5 and 17 years of age and adults between 18 and 65 years old.
All participants tested positive for the coronavirus and showed symptoms, or had a high risk of exposure to an infected person.
Older children and adults had similar amounts of the virus’ genetic material in their noses, the study found, while kids under 5 years old had anywhere between 10 to 100 times more virus in their upper respiratory tract than adults and older children.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says kids 2 years and older should wear a face mask over their mouths and noses to prevent viral spread, but that kids under 2 years old shouldn’t “because of the danger of suffocation.”
Important to note is that the genetic material the researchers found is not infectious virus, meaning it’s not contagious and a threat to further spread. However, past studies on the coronavirus and children have reported a connection between higher levels of viral genetic material and its ability to turn into an infectious virus.
Research published earlier this month revealed that school-aged children can spread the virus just as well as adults do, McClatchy New previously reported. But the study showed that kids between 0 and 9 years old were the least likely to spread COVID-19 to others.
“The ability of younger children to spread COVID-19 may have been under-recognized given the rapid and sustained closure of schools and daycare during the pandemic,” the team said in the release. “In addition to public health implications, this population will be important for targeting immunization efforts as SARS-CoV-2 vaccines become available,” they said in the study.