JOHANNESBURG: South Africa's Health Department has said that there are no vaccines currently available to administer children under the age of 12 as children under five years constitute the second highest at-risk group after those over 60 as the Omicron variant takes a vice-like grip over the country.
"As far as vaccinating under the age of 12 is concerned, there is no vaccine registered in South Africa so far. We await applications from the manufacturers for use of vaccines at different ages and different boosters and intervals," said Dr Nicholas Crisp of the Department of Health.
Countries around the world are currently expanding their vaccination programmes to include young children as infections surge due to the Omicron variant.
"At the moment we know there are some other countries that have started doing that, but we have not had an application to my knowledge. We did get an indication that Pfizer was going to make an application in the early parts of next year, so it is not likely that we will have that in the very near future," Crisp said during a media briefing on Friday.
South African experts on Thursday expressed concern about the rising number of COVID-19 infections among young children, even as the country recorded a further 16,055 infections and 25 deaths overnight on Friday.
"Now, at the start of this fourth wave, we see quite a sharp increase across all age groups, but particularly in the under-fives," said Dr Waasila Jassat of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD).
"As expected, the incidence is still lowest in children, however, the incidence in those under five is now second highest and second only to the incidence in those over 60."
"The trend that we are seeing now that is different from what we saw before is the particular increase in hospital admissions in children under five years," Jassat added.
Dr Michelle Groome, from the NICD, said more research would be done to investigate the reasons for this phenomenon.
"It is still very early on in the wave. At this stage it has just started in the younger age groups and we will know more (by) monitoring this age group in the coming weeks. We do just need to highlight the importance of surge preparedness to also include paediatric beds and staff," Groome explained.
South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla has said that the country can manage the fourth wave of infections driven by the Omicron variant without imposing stringent restrictions, as he urged citizens to follow the protocols and get fully vaccinated.
"We can manage this fourth wave; we can manage Omicron with the basic tools we all know," Phaahla said.
The Omicron variant, which has raised fears of a surge in infections around the world, was first detected in South Africa last month.
"We can still manage this in a manner where government doesn't have to invoke serious restrictions over the next few days if we all just do our basic duties of the safety measures and also if more of us who are eligible, everybody from 12 years upwards, approach the nearest vaccination sites to receive our jab," he said during a media briefing on Friday.
New COVID-19 cases in South Africa have swelled from about 200 a day in mid-November to more than 16,000 on Friday.
The Omicron variant has over 50 mutations, and scientists have called it a big jump in the evolution of the virus.
When asked whether stricter lockdown measures were in the pipeline amid the exponentially rising rate of infections across the country, the Health Minister said there would be a meeting in the coming week.
"We needed just over a week to monitor the situation and see what measures need to be taken. At this stage one would not want to pre-empt. There will be a meeting in the coming week and we will look at among other things the rapid rise (in infections), but we will also look at whether we need to raise the restrictions from the Level One where we are," Phaahla offered.
South Africa uses a five-level lockdown strategy and is currently at the lowest Level One.
"While we are saying what the government is going to do, all of us individually and collectively could even reduce the level to which regulatory intervention would be required by simply wearing masks and the key really is just avoiding big gatherings, especially indoors," he explained.
Phaahla noted that only a small number of people who have been vaccinated have gotten sick, mostly with mild cases, while the vast majority of those who have been hospitalised were not vaccinated.
The minister strongly condemned people for ignoring symptoms and going out in public, thereby putting others at risk.
"People who know that if they are positive and then go out for groceries or medicines are very irresponsible. We should condemn such behaviour. When you have tested positive or even if you have been in contact (with someone positive); until your results come, you have to keep away from mixing with other people," he added.