COVID-19: Children Carry Higher Than Expected Viral Load

According to a story from ScienceBlog, a comprehensive study which focused on children diagnosed with coronavirus/COVID-19 produced some results that surprised scientists and suggested that children could play a greater role in spreading the disease than previously thought. The study looked at 192 subjects from age 0-22 years. The study is titled “Pediatric SARS-CoV-2: Clinical Presentation, Infectivity, and Immune Reponses,” and was first published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

COVID-19 Viral Load in Children

Of the 192 participants in the study, a total of 49 were found to be positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. 18 others were later found to have late-onset symptoms that were linked to COVID-19 infection. The researchers were shocked to discover that the patients in the study actually had a higher level of the virus, or viral load, in their air passages when compared to severely affected adult patients who were hospitalized.

The lead author of this investigation was Dr. Lael Yonker, who serves as director of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Cystic Fibrosis Center. Yonker definitely found the high viral load in the child patients to be unexpected. Viral load specifically refers to the concentration of viral particles found in a given blood sample. The finding suggests that viral load doesn’t necessarily correspond to more severe symptoms, at least in pediatric patients. Compared to severely affected adult patients confined to the ICU, the children patients were not as badly affected.

However, a patient with a high viral load is more contagious. Senior author of the manuscript Alessio Fasano had this to say about the findings:

“…We have reached the erroneous conclusion that the vast majority of people infected are adults…we should not discount children as potential spreaders for this virus.”

As millions of children around the country have been reintroduced into school or daycare environments, sometimes without many serious measures to encourage social distancing and mask wearing, the results of this study make the efforts towards in-person schooling seem riskier than ever before. While it is true that children do not appear as likely to have severe cases, the findings confirm that children are very capable of spreading the virus to teachers, parents, and siblings.

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