FACT CHECK: Are children likely to transmit COVID-19?
Updated: Sep 17, 2020
Note (Sept. 17, 2020): This fact-checking story is no longer up-to-date. In the months since it was published on May 1, 2020, new evidence has emerged showing that children aged ten and above may be just as likely as adults to spread the virus. You can read a more recent article on children and COVID-19 here.
FALSE. Based on the evidence we have so far, children do not appear to play a significant role in spreading COVID-19.
The Quebec government announced this week that it will begin reopening schools on May 11 after eight weeks of shutdown due to COVID-19, prompting a debate about whether children can spread the novel coronavirus. In an interview with CTV, one infectious disease expert, Abdu Sharkawy, warned that “Children, while not normally affected very badly by COVID-19, serve as very good vectors of transmission of viruses.” Yet in the same story, another infectious disease specialist, Joanna Merckx, told the journalists that “children are not big drivers of transmission,” and that the real concern will be adults at schools.
Here’s what we know. In a study conducted in France, researchers found that one infected nine-year-old child visited three different schools, but did not spread COVID-19 to any other students. In another study from Australia, researchers looked at fifteen schools in New South Wales that had eighteen cases of COVID-19 (nine students and nine staff members). The infected children and adults had contact with 735 students and 128 staff, but only two students caught the virus—no teachers or staff were infected. (It’s unclear, however, why none of the adult staff members spread the virus among themselves.)
Children also don’t appear to be spreading the virus very much at home. Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia investigated thirty-one household clusters in China, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Iran, and found that a child was the primary spreader in only three of the households.
A recent review of seventy-eight studies on COVID-19 in children by the pediatric medicine website Don’t Forget the Bubbles, concluded that the virus appears to affect children less often and with milder symptoms than adults. “The role of children in transmission is unclear, but it seems likely they do not play a significant role,” the team of pediatricians wrote. They noted that a joint team of World Health Organization experts sent to Wuhan, China, did not find any cases of transmission from a child to an adult, though it lacked sufficient data to make firm conclusions on the role of children in transmissions generally.
There are still many things that researchers don’t know. The Don’t Forget the Bubbles report pointed out that data from China showed that 32 percent of confirmed and suspected cases in children six to ten years old were asymptomatic, which could mean that more children have been infected than we realize.
Many health authorities are playing it safe given the lack of data. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says “there is still some uncertainty” about the extent to which asymptomatic children spread COVID-19. And in the United States, the CDC warned on April 10 that patients who are asymptomatic or show few symptoms, including children, “likely play an important role in disease transmission”—although they noted that they are missing data for the majority of pediatric cases on disease symptoms, severity, or underlying conditions.
Overall, children appear less likely to spread COVID-19, but public health researchers don’t have enough data to be certain. More research is needed.