‘Healthy’ children can carry enough coronavirus load to hospitalize an adult, new study finds

In extremely troubling news for policymakers the world over, new research suggests that asymptomatic, otherwise “healthy” children can carry up to twice the viral load of hospitalized adult Covid-19 patients.

As summer in the northern hemisphere draws to a close, kids are tentatively expected to return to school in the coming weeks, amid concerns among teachers and daycare center workers. 

However, new research conducted at two hospitals in Boston during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak found that, despite contracting the virus at lower rates than adults and often showing milder or no symptoms at all, kids may actually carry surprisingly high viral loads. 

These potentially contagious teenage Typhoid Marys run the risk of ferrying any potential viral infection back and forth between school and home, raising the risk of future outbreaks, warn the researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children (MGH) in Boston.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve mainly screened symptomatic subjects, so we’ve reached the erroneous conclusion that the vast majority of people infected are adults,” said MGH pediatric gastroenterologist Dr Alessio Fasano.

“However, our results show that kids aren’t protected against this virus. We shouldn’t discount children as potential spreaders.” 

The researchers examined 192 child patients between 0 and 22 years of age and found 49 were carrying SARS-CoV-2, the strain of virus that causes Covid-19, while 18 had multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), an illness related to the disease. 

The 49 youngsters had shockingly high levels of coronavirus in their airways, especially in the first two days after contracting it.

“I wasn’t expecting the viral load to be so high,” said MGH pediatric pulmonologist Dr Lael Yonker. “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 [that of] a ‘healthy child’ who’s walking around with a high SARS-CoV-2 viral load.”

One key point to note is that the study did not examine the transmissibility of the virus, but merely the children’s viral load capacity, regardless of outward symptoms. 

Research conducted on adult Covid-19 patients suggests a higher viral load induces more severe symptoms, however, rather bafflingly, the same doesn’t appear to hold true for kids: children in the study were found to be walking around with enough viral load to hospitalize an adult to the point of intubation. 

To make matters worse, future pollen and influenza seasons could provide new additional challenges to mitigating coronavirus outbreaks, as those with mild or no symptoms may actually be vessels for huge amounts of viral load but may go untested as a result of seasonal illnesses. 

Only half of the children with acute SARS-CoV-2 studied had an elevated temperature, which is even more worrying, given the well-established order of Covid-19 symptoms, which begins with a fever, rendering temperature screenings at schools an ineffective method for preventing future outbreaks.

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