The African Union has denied halting the use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine but will target its use in countries that are yet to report cases of the South African strain of the disease, the head of the African Center for Disease Control (CDC) announced.

South Africa’s temporary halt of the rollout of the vaccine because of preliminary trial data showing it offered minimal protection against mild to moderate disease caused by the 501Y.V2 variant raised fears that other countries in the continent may follow suit.

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

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told a virtual news conference that more work was needed to understand how the AstraZeneca vaccine worked against the fast-spreading 501Y.V2 variant first identified late last year.

“For now our strategy is not to throw away our 100 million doses, but rather target countries that as we indicated have not reported cases of that specific variant,” Nkengasong said, adding that only six countries other than South Africa had reported that the variant was circulating.

“You still have an extensive number of countries that can benefit from those vaccines, so we will not be walking away from AstraZeneca vaccines at all.”

Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization Africa director, said the WHO was briefing African countries on a recommendation by its SAGE panel of experts to use the AstraZeneca vaccine, even in countries where the 501Y.V2 variant may reduce its efficacy.

She said interactions with countries neighboring South Africa were “particularly intense” after eSwatini said on Tuesday that it would not use the AstraZeneca shots.

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

The South African strain has evoked fears among health experts due to its ability to potentially evade the immune response generated by prior exposure to the coronavirus or vaccines.

Botswana, Comoros, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique and Zambia have all confirmed cases of the variant, and there are concerns it has spread to other countries like Eswatini and Tanzania.

For those where it is present, “we recommend the acceleration of their preparedness to introduce all vaccines that have received emergency use authorisation or approval by regulatory 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 own evaluations of the AstraZeneca vaccine across multiple countries.He added that talks were ongoing with Johnson & Johnson to access more doses than the 120 million that feature in the AU’s vaccine plan.

Nkengasong said the rollout of 7 million AstraZeneca doses funded by telecoms firm MTN would continue. “That plan will still move forward, this is a good vaccine without the variant,” he said.

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

On Wednesday, South Africa said it wanted to see whether it could swap AstraZeneca doses it had ordered from the Serum Institute of India with shots of a different vaccine available via the COVAX vaccine distribution scheme.

Asked about that idea, AstraZeneca’s chief executive said on Thursday that the drugmaker would support anything agreed between the Serum Institute and the South African government.

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