Are children the secret COVID-19 superspreaders? Here’s what the experts say

After myths about children being immune to COVID-19 infections was quickly debunked, a new study not only confirms that children are not immune to the deadly virus, but that they play a huge role in spreading the virus.

Despite schools around the US weighing reopening possibilities during the ongoing pandemic, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Mass General Hospital for Children found that infected children have a “significantly higher level” of the coronavirus than hospitalized adults being treaded for COVID-19.

The study, which appears in The Journal of Pediatrics, examined 192 children, with 49 kids testing positive for the coronavirus and an additional 18 developed COVID-19 symptoms later. Researchers said the troubling finding was how the infected children had higher levels of the virus in their airways compared to hospitalized adults in ICUs.

Lael Yonker, the director fo the MGH Cystic Fibrosis Center and lead author of the study, found the results “surprising.”

“I was not expecting the viral load to be so high. You think of a hospital, and of all of the precautions taken to treat severely ill adults, but the viral loads of these hospitalized patients are significantly lower than a ‘healthy child’ who is walking around with a high SARS-CoV-2 viral load,” Yonker said in a press release.

Researchers looked at viral loads in infected participants’ blood through nose and throat swabs, which were compared to infected adults who were hospitalized. The study noted how COVID-19 symptoms often resemble that of influenza and the common cold and while children were not as likely to get as seriously sick as adults, they potentially could be spreading the virus at a high transmission, which could be troubling as schools consider reopening despite a vaccine not being ready yet.

“Kids are not immune from this infection, and their symptoms don’t correlate with exposure and infection,” Alessio Fasano, director of the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center at MGH, said in a statement. “During this COVID-19 pandemic, we have mainly screened symptomatic subjects, so we have reached the erroneous conclusion that the vast majority of people infected are adults. However, our results show that kids are not protected against this virus. We should not discount children as potential spreaders for this virus.”

Additional findings from the study showed the impact of the virus on socio-economic groups. As studies have pointed toward lower-income communities being hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, the study found that 51% of infected children came from low-income communications compared to just 2% from high-income communities.

In a recent study released by New York City officials, the report — which detailed what was considered the epicenter for the outbreak — showed how areas in the Bronx and Queens were hit much harder compared to more affluent areas in Manhattan.

An additional finding from the study found that children can develop a systemic infection weeks after an infection, which could result in severe cardiac problems, shock, and acute heart failure.

“This is a severe complication as a result of the immune response to COVID-19 infection, and the number of these patients is growing,” Fasano said. “And, as in adults with these very serious systemic complications, the heart seems to be the favorite organ targeted by post-COVID-19 immune response.”

Fasano added: “This study provides much-needed facts for policymakers to make the best decisions possible for schools, daycare centers and other institutions that serve children,”

“Kids are a possible source of spreading this virus, and this should be taken into account in the planning stages for reopening schools.”