TORONTO -- A new study will determine the number of children who are becoming seriously ill as a result of COVID-19.

The Canadian Paediatric Surveillance Program (CPSP) will collect data from 2,800 pediatricians across the country to provide a more accurate picture of the toll coronavirus is taking on children’s bodies.

Dr. Charlotte Moore Hepburn is the medical affairs director for the Canadian Paediatric Society, which is working with the Public Health Agency of Canada on the study. According to her, evidence of COVID-19 is developing at the speed of “a bullet train.” With so much information being received so quickly, she explained that not enough analysis has been conducted yet on exactly how the virus impacts the health of children.

“We recognize that very little is known about how COVID-19 affects pediatric patients,” Hepburn told over the phone on Tuesday. “I think you would struggle to find anyone who could compare this to anything else in modern medical times.”

Data from China suggests that most children infected with coronavirus did not experience symptoms that were severe or critical. In fact, the virus was less fatal to children than it was to adults.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics looked at 2,143 children whose COVID-19 infections were reported to China’s Centers for Disease Control from Jan. 16 to Feb. 8. Research shows that 90 per cent of these children – who ranged from 1.5 months to 17 years of age – were diagnosed as mild or moderate cases, while 4.4 per cent were asymptomatic. This means that more than 94 per cent of children involved in the study had no trouble breathing and did not require oxygen, despite being infected with COVID-19.

Approximately six per cent of children were diagnosed as severe and critical cases. This figure is much lower than that of adult patients. The same study discovered that 18.5 per cent of adults with the virus were diagnosed as severe and critical.

Of the children involved in the study, one died.

Data recorded in other countries also show that children make up a small portion of the total number of COVID-19 cases. In South Korea, only 4.8 per cent of cases included children 19 years of age and younger, according to the Journal of Korean Medical Science. In the United States, children between the ages of 0 and 19 made up only 5 per cent of cases as of March 16, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While Moore explained that studies like these are helpful, she pointed out a lack of information regarding key details, especially for children experiencing symptoms so severe that they required hospitalization. It’s for this reason that the CPSP is working in collaboration with doctors across Canada to collect this data.

“Being able to define that population will not only allow us to inform our acute pandemic planning effort from a health systems perspective and a patient education perspective,” she said. “As we look forward to the development of a vaccine or novel therapies, it will also allow us to identify those paediatric patients who would drive the greatest benefit.”

Doctors involved in the study have been asked to report all COVID-19 cases among children under the age of 18 that require hospitalization. Each week, they must collect details such as the age and status of patients, the level of care required in hospital, and past medical history. The CPSP will also collect data on how children with pre-existing medical conditions are impacted by the virus. 

According to Hepburn, the CPSP is part of a larger international network of pediatric surveillance systems. Not only will the program’s researchers collect data on child patients in Canada, they will also share this data with international partners.

“The more data elements there are to analyze, the better able we are to understand the phenomenon and separate truth from noise,” said Hepburn. “Everyone is working … to gather information, review it, and disseminate it so we can learn as much as we can from each other.”

The ability to mobilize so quickly is a testament to the strong public health infrastructure built in Canada over time, Hepburn said. 

“You can only get 2,800 very busy people to get on board overnight if you've got a pre-existing, longstanding, stable relationship with them,” she said. “People are very interested in investing in public health during times of pandemic, but in order for public health to be most effective during times of crisis, you have to invest in public health infrastructure outside of pandemic times too.”