Scientists yet to establish whether the new variant is more contagious or able to overcome immunity provided by jabs.
South Africa has started vaccinating children and adolescents as part of the global phase three clinical trials of China’s Sinovac Biotech COVID-19 vaccine for people aged between six months and 17 years old.
The global study will enroll 2,000 participants in South Africa and 12,000 others will be taking part in Kenya, the Philippines, Chile and Malaysia.
The first children in South Africa were inoculated on Friday at the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in the capital, Pretoria, to kick off the trials and others will get shots at six different sites across the country, Sinovac said in a statement.
“The primary objective of the study is to evaluate the efficacy of two doses of the CoronaVac against confirmed symptomatic COVID-19 cases in children and adolescents,” it added.
“Efficacy will also be evaluated against hospitalization and severe COVID-19 cases.”
According to project director Sanet Aspinall, there has been “a lot of milder and less severe disease in children, but they still remain susceptible”.
“They are … getting the infection and they are then able to transmit it to the rest of the population,” she added.
Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council, said during Friday’s event that “delaying the inclusion of children in the COVID vaccine trials delays our ability to contain COVID-19”.
United States vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna have also undertaken pediatric trials of their shots, prompting several countries to greenlight them for children in varying age groups.
South Africa accounts for more than 35 percent of COVID-19 infections in Africa, with 2.8 million confirmed cases, including 84,327 deaths. It has been battling a resurgence driven by the Delta variant of the coronavirus, recording 6,270 new infections and 175 deaths in the past 24 hours.
More than seven million people have been fully vaccinated with either the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine or the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
South Africa is currently offering vaccines to all adults 18 years and older as it seeks to vaccinate at least 40 million people of its 60 million population by the end of the year, but it is struggling to reach its target of vaccinating at least 300,000 people daily.
While the government has said it will not force people to get vaccinated, some companies have already indicated that they will make shots compulsory for their employees.
Various establishments such as restaurants and bars would have to make their own decision on whether or not they serve unvaccinated patrons.