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Australia Vaccinates Thousands of High-School Students to Stop Delta

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SYDNEY—High-school students were never meant to be early recipients of a Covid-19 vaccine in Australia: Authorities gave priority to older residents considered to be more at risk of being hospitalized or dying from the virus.

Health officials in Australia’s largest city have rushed to vaccinate thousands of students ahead of in-person end-of-school exams that they fear could accelerate the spread of coronavirus in a country that until recently had avoided the worst of the pandemic. A concert hall was repurposed last week as a mass-vaccination clinic for the teenagers, and up to 40,000 Pfizer Inc.BioNTech SE shots earmarked for rural towns were diverted to students from Sydney suburbs that have become Covid-19 hot spots. Authorities said they vaccinated more than 15,000 students by the end of last week.

Driving the new strategy is concern among health officials about the number of children and teenagers infected with the Delta variant. Sydney’s outbreak, while small by global standards, offers a case study in how quickly it can spread in a lightly vaccinated population despite aggressive contact tracing, mask mandates and social distancing.

“Clearly, we are seeing more children being infected with Covid this year compared to what we were seeing last year,” said Marianne Gale, deputy chief health officer for New South Wales state, which includes Sydney.

Kristy Buckley, here with her father, Adam, was one of more than 15,000 high-school students vaccinated ahead of end-of-school exams later this year.

Photo: Adam Buckley

New South Wales has recorded 9,280 local coronavirus cases since June 16, when authorities say a limousine driver who transported an international flight crew was found to have the Delta variant. Of the cases tallied between June 29 and Aug. 17, nearly 30% were among people under 20 years old. Epidemiologists said one explanation could be that many older people had been vaccinated.

Children are less likely than adults to suffer severe illness from the coronavirus. A recent U.K. study found that of more than 1,700 children infected with Covid-19, only 4.4% had symptoms lasting beyond 28 days.

Some preliminary studies suggest the Delta variant could be riskier than other strains for children. Preliminary research from the University of Toronto found that children aged 9 or younger were more than three times as likely to be hospitalized with Delta compared with previous variants.


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“We clearly see greater virulence from Delta in adults, so I don’t know why we wouldn’t expect that in kids,” said David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto, who studied hospital admissions for young children with the variant.

New South Wales on Wednesday reported a daily record of 633 new cases, though metropolitan Sydney and some surrounding areas had been on lockdown since June 26—expanded on Sunday to cover the entire state, after cases were reported in several rural towns. Australia also secured one million extra Pfizer vaccine doses from Poland for people aged 20 to 39 in Sydney hot spots, a further illustration of the changing priorities.

As the Delta variant sweeps the globe, scientists are learning more about why new versions of the coronavirus spread faster, and what this could mean for vaccine efforts. The spike protein, which gives the virus its unmistakable shape, may hold the key. Illustration: Nick Collingwood/WSJ

Covid-19 hospitalizations in Australia overall remain low, at 493, including 73 in intensive care. But the recent outbreak has alarmed health officials because it has proved harder to contain than previous ones, which have been controlled by closing international borders and requiring returning citizens to quarantine in hotels.

Just 21% of Australia’s population is fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, a rate well below those of other developed countries such as the U.S. and U.K., where nearly half are vaccinated. The rollout has been slow in part because the AstraZeneca PLC vaccine—which unlike some of the others can be made in Australia—was deemed inadvisable for people under 60 because of fears of rare blood clots. Australia later changed that advice, urging people over 18 to get the shot.

Around 77,000 students in New South Wales, including the 15,000 vaccinated so far, are due to take end-of-school exams starting in October, and despite rising Covid infections among children authorities say they intend them to be taken mostly in person. In ordinary years the typical setting is a large schoolroom or gymnasium with tables spaced a short distance apart.

Some epidemiologists worry this plan risks new outbreaks.

A concert-hall vaccination.

Photo: dean lewins/Shutterstock

“Any event with a large number of people, particularly if they are indoors, has the potential to be a superspreading event,” said Alexandra Martiniuk, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Sydney School of Public Health.

On Aug. 9, Sydney turned the Qudos Bank Arena—a concert hall where artists like Lana Del Ray and Pink have performed—into a mass-vaccination hub for students, among them Kristy Buckley, an 18-year-old from the city’s southwestern suburbs.

“My little sister has asthma, so if she was to get Covid-19 it would be a little bit worse,” said Ms. Buckley, who attends Mount Carmel Catholic College. “So it was mostly for the safety of the other people around me, and we also needed to get it for school.”

Some school leaders said it isn’t clear what the arrangements will be for students who haven’t been vaccinated in time for the exams. Sue Lennox, principal of St Patrick’s College in the Sydney suburb of Campbelltown, said one idea being considered is separate venues for vaccinated and unvaccinated students.

Barring unvaccinated kids from taking the exams in person would “be grossly unfair and I don’t think that’s ethical,” Ms. Lennox said.

Write to Alice Uribe at alice.uribe@wsj.com

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