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Africa’s first vaccine plant faces closure after Aspen receives no orders

Africa’s first COVID-19 vaccination plant, established by South African pharmaceutical manufacturer Aspen at Gqeberha, may close because it hasn’t received a single order, despite WHO and AU appeals for the continent’s nations to place orders with local manufacturers.

Dr John Nkengasong, director of Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, has said talks about how to raise demand for COVID-19 vaccines are under way and has appealed to African countries to place orders with local manufacturers.

Production has been halted for the past month because of a collapse in demand, putting its future in doubt and threatening to undermine efforts to build a homegrown vaccine industry on the continent.

Aspen Pharmacare had negotiated a licensing deal in November 2020 to package and sell Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine and distribute it across Africa. The plant, in the Eastern Cape, was subsequently opened with high expectations and much fanfare.

Reuters reports that, at the time, the World Health Organization (WHO) called the deal a “transformative moment” in efforts to level inequalities in access to and the supply of COVID-19 vaccines. With only a sixth of adults in Africa fully vaccinated, Aspen’s agreement to sell its branded COVID vaccine Aspenovax across Africa seemed like a sure bet.

“Yet there’ve been no orders received for Aspenovax,” Aspen senior director Stavros Nicolaou told Reuters.

Initially, Africa was sidelined by donor countries in the rush to obtain vaccines, but then also struggled with logistical issues, lack of skilled staff, cold chains and other problems around distribution of the shots. However, donor countries have since paid up and the continent is now well supplied.

The African Union’s goal is to produce 60% of all vaccines administered in Africa locally by 2040, up from the current 1%, and several such plants are being set up.

“If Aspen doesn’t get production, what chance is there for any of the other initiatives?” Nicolaou said.

Bloomberg reports that Nicolau said Aspen needed “clear commitments within weeks” from African governments for orders of its COVID-19 vaccine or it will recommit that production line to more in-demand anaesthetics.

The situation is a setback for Africa’s plans to catch up with more developed countries’ COVID-19 vaccination rates, and prepare for the possibility of future pandemics. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had been part of a movement that criticised rich nations for hoarding vaccines and tried to force pharmaceutical companies to share inoculation recipes, though take-up remains relatively low.

He recently used the state visit to SA by President Umaro Sissoco Embaló of Guinea-Bissau to again condemn the failure of the international community to make COVID-19 vaccines available in Africa.

He said that the only way Africa could recover was to vaccinate more people against COVID-19 and “it is a cause for great concern that the global community has not sustained the principles of solidarity and co-operation when it comes to equitable access to vaccines”.

The Financial Times reports that Nicolau said unless the issue was resolved, the drive to increase regional manufacturing would “remain just a political nicety which has no substance”. If production stops at the Aspen facility, regional health officials fear it could undermine an African Union goal to produce 60% pof all vaccines administered in Africa locally by 2040, up from just 1% now.

It quotes Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, as saying that if Aspen fails, “it sends a very poor signal about the target we all agreed to develop vaccine manufacturing in Africa”.

African leaders are holding emergency talks to see if they can throw the plant a lifeline — either by pushing J&J to produce the roughly 240m doses they owe the African Union at Aspen or by encouraging the Covax vaccine scheme to order doses of Aspenovax. But J&J told the FT that it already has tens of millions of vaccines in stock that could be shipped to countries immediately. Covax already has agreements in place to access more than 2bn doses.


Reuters article – South Africa's Aspen COVID-19 vaccine plant risks closure after no orders, executive says (Open access)


Bloomberg article – Aspen May Close Covid Vaccine Line in Weeks as Talks Drag (Open access)


Financial Times article – Africa’s top Covid vaccine plant faces uncertain future after production halted (Restricted access)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


US injects $200m into J&J vaccine production in Eastern Cape


Health campaigners want access to SA's vaccine contract with J&J


J&J vaccines from Gqeberha plant wing their way to AU states



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