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UPDATE 2-Africa not 'walking away' from AstraZeneca vaccine, CDC says

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* Vaccine one of best suited to African health systems

* But trial showed lower efficacy vs variant in S.Africa

* S.Africa could seek to swap AstraZeneca doses

* AU disease body says to conduct own evaluations

* WHO recommends using vaccine even where variant present(Updates after WHO briefing, adds AstraZeneca CEO)

By Alexander Winning and Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo

JOHANNESBURG, Feb 11 (Reuters) - The African Union (AU) willnot be "walking away" from AstraZeneca's COVID-19vaccine but will target its use in countries that have notreported cases of the variant dominant in South Africa, the headof its disease control body said on Thursday.

The comments come after South Africa paused the rollout ofthe vaccine because of preliminary trial data showing it offeredminimal protection against mild to moderate disease caused bythe 501Y.V2 variant dominant in the country.

South Africa said on Wednesday it could seek to sell or swapits AstraZeneca shots, and will use an alternative from Johnson& Johnson to start protecting healthcare workers laterthis month.

African countries are due to receive 100 million doses ofthe AstraZeneca vaccine this year under an AU vaccine plan.

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for DiseaseControl and Prevention (CDC), told a virtual news conferencethat more work was needed to understand how the AstraZenecavaccine worked against the fast-spreading 501Y.V2 variant firstidentified late last year.

"For now our strategy is not to throw away our 100 milliondoses, but rather target countries that as we indicated have notreported cases of that specific variant," Nkengasong said,adding that only six countries other than South Africa hadreported that the variant was circulating.

"You still have an extensive number of countries that canbenefit from those vaccines, so we will not be walking away fromAstraZeneca vaccines at all."

Kenya said on Thursday that it would move ahead with plansto use the AstraZeneca shot.

Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization Africadirector, said the WHO was briefing African countries on arecommendation by its SAGE panel of experts to use theAstraZeneca vaccine, even in countries where the 501Y.V2 variantmay reduce its efficacy.

She said interactions with countries neighbouring SouthAfrica were "particularly intense" after eSwatini said onTuesday that it would not use the AstraZeneca shots.

"While a vaccine that prevents against all forms of COVID-19illness is our biggest hope, preventing severe cases andhospitalisations which overwhelm ... health systems is crucial,"Moeti told another news conference.

ALARMING VARIANT

The 501Y.V2 variant partly worries health experts because ofits ability to potentially evade the immune response generatedby prior exposure to the coronavirus or vaccines.

African countries that have confirmed cases of the variantinclude Botswana, Comoros, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique and Zambia,although there are concerns it has spread to other places likeeSwatini and Tanzania.

The Africa CDC recommended that countries that had notdetected the variant proceed with the AstraZeneca rollout.

For those where it is present, "we recommend theacceleration of their preparedness to introduce all vaccinesthat have received emergency use authorisation or approval byregulatory authorities," Nkengasong said, adding that"consideration should be given to the effectiveness of the(AstraZeneca) vaccine against the 501Y.V2 variant."

Nkengasong said the Africa CDC would be doing its ownevaluations of the AstraZeneca vaccine across multiplecountries.

He added that talks were ongoing with Johnson & Johnson toaccess more doses than the 120 million that feature in the AU'svaccine plan.

Nkengasong said the rollout of 7 million AstraZeneca dosesfunded by telecoms firm MTN would continue. "That planwill still move forward, this is a good vaccine without thevariant," he said.

AstraZeneca says it has started adapting its vaccine againstthe 501Y.V2 variant.

On Wednesday, South Africa said it wanted to see whether itcould swap AstraZeneca doses it had ordered from the SerumInstitute of India with shots of a different vaccine availablevia the COVAX vaccine distribution scheme.

Asked about that idea, AstraZeneca's chief executive said onThursday that the drugmaker would support anything agreedbetween the Serum Institute and the South African government.

(Additional reporting by Emma Rumney in Johannesburg, DuncanMiriri in Nairobi and Ludwig Burger in FrankfurtEditing by Alison Williams and Nick Macfie)