By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia, quickly becoming one of most-vaccinated nations against COVID-19, will likely start administering the shots for children under the age of 12 in January, officials said on Sunday.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said medical regulators are still reviewing the health and safety data for the vaccinations to be administered for children between the ages of five and 11 and are unlikely to decide this year.

“The expectation that they have set is the first part of January, hopefully early January,” Hunt told the Australian Broadcast Corp’s Insiders programme. “But they’re going as quickly as possible.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month recommended the Pfizer Inc/BioNTech SE shot for broad use in the 5-11 age group, after it was authorized by the Food and Drug Administration.

Army Lieutenant-General John Frewen, Australia’s COVID-19 Taskforce commander told The Age newspaper that Australia has secured the necessary supplies. “We have actually purchased sufficient supply for doses and boosters down to infants,” Frewen said.

On Friday, Australia crossed the 90% single-dose mark for those aged 16 and over, with 83% having two shots. The country has also vaccinated 57.7% of children between the ages of 12 and 15, according to health ministry data.

Australia’s high vaccination rates were key to its decision to partially reopen international borders this month for the first time since the start of the pandemic, despite ongoing Delta variant outbreaks in the most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria.

On Sunday, there were 1,100 infections reported in the two states, home to nearly 60% of the country’s population. Five more people died.

However, despite the Delta outbreaks that led to months of lockdown in the two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, the national tally of just 191,000 infections and 1,596 deaths is far lower than those of many other developed nations.

Neighbouring New Zealand, which is also learning to live with the coronavirus through high vaccination rates, reported 207 new cases and one death, bringing the total number of confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic to 8,331 infections and 34 deaths.

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by William Mallard)