COVID-19 in the continent’s children: UK award supports new research

30 October 2020 | Story Nobhongo Gxolo. Photo Big World Cinema on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Drakenstein Child Health Study. Read time 5 min.
Mother and child participants in the birth cohort study, the Drakenstein Child Health Study.
Mother and child participants in the birth cohort study, the Drakenstein Child Health Study.

Professor Heather Zar, the chair of the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health and the director of the South African Medical Research Council Unit on Child and Adolescent Health at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Faculty of Health Sciences, is spearheading a research project that is one of 12 globally to receive a recent COVID-19 grant.

The National Institute for Health Research / United Kingdom Research and Innovation Global Effort on COVID-19 (NIHR/UKRI GECO) grant is a collaborative funding opportunity. Under Professor Zar as the project leader, the study will offer a unique opportunity to understand the determinants of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection and coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in children in Africa in a low-middle-income country (LMIC) context. The award will enable Zar and her team to undertake a study titled “Spectrum, determinants and long-term outcome of SARS-CoV-2 infection and disease in African children”.

The reasons children typically develop mild illness or have asymptomatic infection are poorly understood. In LMICs, where children make up a large proportion of the population, risk factors such as malnutrition, HIV exposure, tuberculosis or prior infection with endemic coronaviruses may have an impact on the risk of infection and development of COVID-19.

This project aims to investigate the spectrum of illness in African children, the risk factors for infection or disease, and the immune or inflammatory factors protecting children against SARS-CoV-2 infection or severe COVID-19 disease.

Zar is collaborating with partners at the universities of Western Australia and Southampton in the United Kingdom for this research.

COVID-19 infection in African children

“This funding provides a wonderful opportunity to better understand COVID-19 in African children in an LMIC context,” she said.

This is particularly relevant because of the high burden of pneumonia, which continues to be the major single killer of children under five years of age, due to factors such as malnutrition, smoke exposure and the high burden of infectious disease in these settings.


“Understanding why children are only mildly affected may be key to developing new strategies to prevent or ameliorate illness.”

“However, this hasn’t occurred with COVID-19,” said Zar, who is an affiliate member of the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM) at UCT. Surprisingly, children in LMICs and globally are predominantly only mildly affected by COVID-19, with relatively few severe cases or deaths occurring in young children. The current project will investigate whether prior infection with other organisms (including seasonal coronaviruses) protects children against severe disease through development of immunity.

“Understanding why children are only mildly affected may be key to developing new strategies to prevent or ameliorate illness,” said Zar.

Drakenstein Child Health Study

Whitney Barnett, the project’s programme manager, said that this funding will offer researchers the additional focus of investigating COVID-19 across different settings, ranging from communities to hospitals. SARS-CoV-2 infection will be investigated in children who are hospitalised with pneumonia as well as in children who are part of the population-based Drakenstein Child Health Study (DCHS), a novel African birth cohort study, which is led by Zar.

The DCHS has comprehensively investigated the early-life determinants of child health, and developmental pathways to health or disease from pregnancy through childhood – so it provides a unique platform to study COVID-19 in children, and the impact of the pandemic on child health.


“It is especially important to be able to do this study here because children make up a high proportion of the population.”

“The DCHS also bridges the intersection of infectious diseases and the emergence of non-communicable diseases,” Zar said.

“It is especially important to be able to do this study here because children make up a high proportion of the population, and risk factors such as malnutrition, pollution, poverty and a high burden of infections may contribute to their vulnerability to developing illness.”

She added that the context of the DCHS offers further understanding of COVID-19-related childhood illness, including the protective or risk factors for infection or disease that have been carefully measured from the antenatal period through childhood, and the role of inflammation.

As a child health specialist in respiratory illness, Zar said that this will inform future research and healthcare approaches and provide “a unique opportunity to generate new knowledge, identify risk factors for illness and develop novel strategies for prevention and treatment”.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.

Coronavirus Disease 2019 updates

COVID-19 is a global pandemic that caused President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare a national disaster in South Africa on 15 March 2020 and to implement a national lockdown from 26 March.

UCT is taking the threat of infection in our university community extremely seriously, and this page will be updated regularly with the latest COVID-19 information. Please note that the information on this page is subject to change depending on current lockdown regulations.

Frequently asked questions


Daily updates

Friday, 5 February 14:20, 5 February 2021
Monday, 4 January 16:50, 4 January 2021
Friday, 18 December 11:30, 18 December 2020
Thursday, 19 November 09:30, 19 November 2020
Friday, 13 November 12:40, 13 November 2020
Friday, 16 October 10:05, 16 October 2020
Wednesday, 14 October 12:50, 14 October 2020
Tuesday, 22 September 14:10, 22 September 2020
Friday, 11 September 10:05, 11 September 2020
Monday, 31 August 12:20, 31 August 2020
Wednesday, 12 August 10:20, 12 August 2020
Friday, 7 August 11:24, 7 August 2020
Thursday, 6 August 18:26, 6 August 2020
Monday, 27 July 14:00, 27 July 2020
Wednesday, 15 July 09:30, 15 July 2020
Monday, 13 July 14:25, 13 July 2020
Monday, 6 July 16:20, 6 July 2020
Thursday, 25 June 10:15, 25 June 2020
Tuesday, 23 June 12:30, 23 June 2020
Thursday, 18 June 17:35, 18 June 2020
Wednesday, 17 June 10:45, 17 June 2020
Tuesday, 2 June 12:20, 2 June 2020
Friday, 29 May 09:25, 29 May 2020
Monday, 25 May 14:00, 25 May 2020
Thursday, 21 May 12:00, 21 May 2020
Wednesday, 6 May 10:00, 6 May 2020
Tuesday, 5 May 17:05, 5 May 2020
Thursday, 30 April 17:10, 30 April 2020
Tuesday, 28 April 10:30, 28 April 2020
Friday, 24 April 09:35, 24 April 2020
Thursday, 23 April 17:00, 23 April 2020
Wednesday, 22 April 14:25, 22 April 2020
Monday, 20 April 17:45, 20 April 2020
Friday, 17 April 12:30, 17 April 2020
Thursday, 16 April 09:45, 16 April 2020
Tuesday, 14 April 11:30, 14 April 2020
Thursday, 9 April 09:00, 9 April 2020
Wednesday, 8 April 15:40, 8 April 2020
Wednesday, 1 April 15:50, 1 April 2020
Friday, 27 March 11:40, 27 March 2020
Thursday, 26 March 18:30, 26 March 2020
Tuesday, 24 March 15:40, 24 March 2020
Monday, 23 March 15:40, 23 March 2020
Friday, 20 March 16:00, 20 March 2020
Thursday, 19 March 09:15, 19 March 2020
Wednesday, 18 March 16:00, 18 March 2020
Tuesday, 17 March 12:50, 17 March 2020
Monday, 16 March 17:15, 16 March 2020

Campus communications


New SRC and other updates 16:44, 4 November 2020
Virtual graduation ceremonies 13:30, 21 October 2020
Online staff assembly and other updates 15:09, 30 September 2020
Fee adjustments and other updates 15:21, 16 September 2020
Call for proposals: TLC2020 10:15, 26 August 2020
SAULM survey and other updates 15:30, 5 August 2020
COVID-19 cases and other updates 15:26, 5 August 2020
New UCT Council and other updates 15:12, 15 July 2020
Upcoming UCT virtual events 09:30, 15 July 2020
Pre-paid data for UCT students 14:25, 22 April 2020
Update for postgraduate students 12:55, 20 April 2020
UCT Human Resources and COVID-19 16:05, 19 March 2020
UCT confirms second COVID-19 case 09:15, 19 March 2020
Update on UCT COVID-19 response 13:50, 11 March 2020
Update on COVID-19 17:37, 6 March 2020


Video messages from the Department of Medicine

Getting credible, evidence-based, accessible information and recommendations relating to COVID-19

The Department of Medicine at the University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital, are producing educational video material for use on digital platforms and in multiple languages. The information contained in these videos is authenticated and endorsed by the team of experts based in the Department of Medicine. Many of the recommendations are based on current best evidence and are aligned to provincial, national and international guidelines. For more information on UCT’s Department of Medicine, please visit the website.

To watch more videos like these, visit the Department of Medicine’s YouTube channel.

Useful information from UCT

External resources

News and opinions

Statements and media releases

Media releases

Read more  

Statements from Government


In an email to the UCT community, Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said:
“COVID-19, caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, is a rapidly changing epidemic. [...] Information [...] will be updated as and when new information becomes available.”


We are continuing to monitor the situation and we will be updating the UCT community regularly – as and when there are further updates. If you are concerned or need more information, students can contact the Student Wellness Service on 021 650 5620 or 021 650 1271 (after hours), while staff can contact 021 650 5685.