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UPDATE 1-J&J vaccine shipments from S.Africa to Europe halted, AU says

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NAIROBI, Sept 2 (Reuters) - An arrangement whereby Johnson & Johnson (J&J) was shipping COVID-19 vaccine doses to Europe that had been packaged in South Africa has been suspended, African Union (AU) envoy Strive Masiyiwa said on Thursday.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last month he was "stunned" by the arrangement, since Europe has very high vaccination rates while even the most vulnerable people in many African countries had not been vaccinated.

At the time the European Commission described it as a temporary agreement, while J&J had no comment when contacted by Reuters.

The shots packaged by J&J's South African partner Aspen that were already sent to Europe would be returned, Masiyiwa told a news briefing organised by the AU's disease control body on Thursday.

J&J had shipped less than 20 million doses to Europe, he said, and the halting of the shipments was partly due to interventions by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Under its contract with J&J, Aspen imports the drug substance for the vaccine from the U.S. pharmaceutical company and packages it - a process called "fill and finish" - at its plant in South Africa.

J&J has a bilateral deal with South Africa to supply 31 million vaccine doses and a separate contract with the AU for 220 million doses with an option for a further 180 million. (Reporting by Maggie Fick Writing by Alexander Winning Editing by Bernadette Baum)