Exclusive: Kids catch and spread coronavirus half as much as adults, Iceland study confirms

Big decisions around COVID-19 and children have been heavy on politics and short on science. New large-scale studies are changing that.

Students take their seats for the first day of in-person kindergarten at Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, November 16, 2020.

In the midst of the worst surge of COVID-19 cases in the United States, many state and local officials are again wrestling with the hot-button issue of whether to shut schools down. Now, emerging research confirms that schools aren’t the primary drivers of outbreaks, but cases will seep in and contribute to the disease’s spread whenever a country loses control of containing the pandemic.

National Geographic was given exclusive access to the results from an Icelandic study that provides definitive evidence of how much children contribute to coronavirus spread. Researchers with the nation’s Directorate of Health and deCODE genetics, a human-genomics company in Reykjavik, monitored every adult and child in the country who was quarantined after potentially being exposed this spring, using contact tracing and genetic sequencing to trace links between various outbreak clusters. This 40,000-person study found that children under 15 were about half as likely as adults to be infected, and only half as likely as adults to transmit the virus to others. Almost all the coronavirus transmissions to children came from adults.

“They can and do get infected and transmit to others, but they do both less frequently than adults,” says Kári Stefánsson, the chief executive of deCODE.

This analysis is one in a recent flurry of large-scale studies that support the conclusion that infected adults pose a greater danger to children than kids do to adults. These studies could help inform officials who are struggling to decide when, or if, to close schools, knowing that such...

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