Picture: GALLO IMAGES/SHARON SERETLO
Picture: GALLO IMAGES/SHARON SERETLO

Aspen Pharmacare , SA’s biggest pharmaceutical manufacturer, has agreed terms for a deal with Covid-19 vaccine manufacturer Johnson & Johnson to produce its own branded version to sell in Africa, it announced on Tuesday.

The agreement gives Aspen greater control over which customers to supply and paves the way for a further licensing deal for manufacturing the active pharmaceutical ingredients used in the jab, bolstering Africa’s security of supply.

Aspen was contracted by J&J in November 2020 to formulate, fill and package vials of its Covid-19 shot, but until now it has been J&J that determines which countries can purchase the product. While the majority of the doses Aspen helps produce have been shipped to Africa, J&J initially sent some to Europe, triggering international criticism.

The new agreement means Aspen can sell the vaccines it bottles, branded Aspenovax, to AU members and multinational organisations such as the international vaccine-sharing vehicle Covax.

The deal comes as the emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has highlighted the need for greater vaccine equity, said Aspen CEO Stephen Saad.

“Africa remains vaccine constrained, preventing an effective response to the need to protect Africans against the virus,” he said.

African nations import 99% of the vaccines they administer, a situation that left them at the back of the queue when the coronavirus crisis struck in 2020 and wealthier nations hoarded Covid-19 vaccines made on their home soil. As a result, Africa lags the rest of the world, with only 7% of its population vaccinated against the disease.

Solution for Africa

“The solution has to be regional capacitation. We have dispelled any myths that Africa cannot be home to vaccine capacity. Aspen has made more than 120-million [J&J] doses to date, almost all going to Africa,” Saad said.

“As with the solution found over a decade ago resulting in voluntary licences for antiretrovirals used in treating HIV/Aids, we hope that this vaccine licence and related technical transfers may serve as a blueprint to assist in capacitating Africa and other developing markets,” he added.

Aspen has the capacity to bottle 300-million doses of J&J’s vaccine at its Gqeberha plant, but aims to ramp this up to 450-million a year by February, and 700-million by January 2023. It ultimately aims to expand vaccine production into shots against other diseases and make as many as 1.3-billion vaccine doses a year, said Saad.

A reliable supply of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) has proven to be a major risk in the provision of vaccines, after a US contractor that provided J&J’s global network of manufactures with these vital components was found to have dispatched contaminated ingredients, forcing the company to destroy millions of doses, including 2-million that Aspen had helped manufacture.

The contamination scandal delayed the supply of J&J vaccines to SA and slowed the start of its inoculation drive earlier in 2021, since it left the government with only limited volumes of Pfizer-BioNTech jabs on hand.

J&J currently supplies Aspen with the APIs for its Covid-19 vaccine from its plant in Leiden, in the Netherlands.

Competitive price 

Saad declined to comment on the price of Aspenovax, saying only that it would priced competitively.

Adrian Thomas, J&J’s vice-president for strategy and external affairs, said work was under way to determine how effective the vaccine was against Omicron.

“Historically vaccines have provided very good coverage. We don’t yet know if that will be the case for Omicron. All of the manufacturers including J&J are rapidly assessing this and will make whatever adjustments are required,” he said.

Describing the deal as a “milestone agreement”, the World Health Organisation’s regional head for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said it marked an important step towards Africa’s ambitions to manufacture its own vaccines. “We see this as being absolutely essential to ensure health security and access to safe, effective and quality products in Africa,” she said.

Aspen’s share price rose the most since September 9, adding 6.26% to R238.26 at the close of the JSE. It has gained more than 90% since the beginning of the year and now has a market capitalisation of R108.75bn.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za

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