African leaders have urged the organization responsible for sourcing the Covax vaccine-sharing program to commit to purchasing at least 30 percent of all Covid-19 vaccines produced on the continent, as the future of Africa’s largest manufacturing facility depends on is at stake.
Covid-19 vaccine production at Aspen Pharmacare’s facility in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, ground to a halt in late March due to a drop in demand, threatening its future and threatening to undermine African Union plans to increase local vaccine production.
Early in the pandemic, Africa struggled to get doses as supplies ran out. In recent months, however, several vaccine makers have lowered 2022 vaccine sales forecasts, citing vaccine glut and hesitant vaccination in less-vaccinated regions like Africa.
In a communiqué from an African Union meeting held last week and seen by the Financial Times, leaders from 16 African nations called on Gavi – a vaccine alliance that Covax runs alongside the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations – to ” purchase at least 30 percent of all vaccines the continent produces for global consumption.”
The leaders, most of whom have plans to build local capacity to manufacture vaccines, also called on organizations responsible for bulk vaccine sourcing to “procure vaccines destined for African countries from African manufacturers to give priority”.
In the communiqué, leaders expressed “strong concern” that Gavi is “too slow in supporting local manufacturing facilities” and “therefore impeding Africa-based manufacturing.”
The number of people being bitten in African countries lags far behind wealthier nations. Health experts have warned that low vaccination coverage makes new variants more likely.
Health officials hope intervention by African leaders could help resolve lingering doubts about the future of the Aspen facility.
In November last year, Aspen signed a licensing agreement with Johnson & Johnson for the exclusive right to bottle and sell its single-shot vaccine in Africa under the brand name Aspenovax.
The move was widely hailed as a sign of progress for Africa’s fledgling vaccine industry. However, no orders have been placed for Aspenovax, and J&J has not asked Aspen to make more doses of its vaccine. Aspen has made around 180 million cans for J&J to date.
dr John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the FT that the move by the continent’s leaders “has increased the likelihood” that Aspen will get new orders and its two Covid-19 vaccine production lines will not be permanent must close.
He said the 30 percent target is “the minimum to ensure the market stays alive.” “We all recognize the need for regional facilities, but you cannot have regional facilities unless Gavi takes a close look at its business model,” he added.
Leaders also pledged to set up new “procurement mechanisms” through Africa CDC and partner organizations “to ensure demand for African-made vaccines and other relevant pharmaceutical products” by the end of the year. The communiqué was released after a meeting on March 10.
An Aspen executive said the communiqué was “encouraging,” adding that it “places a duty on Covax and Gavi” to “do something differently.” They added that Aspen is “ready” to start producing Aspenovax cans when orders come in.
A Gavi spokesman said the group was still under contract with J&J and had “made it clear to them – now that local capacity is available – that we would prefer to receive the remaining doses from Aspen”.
The spokesman explained that with Aspenovax production being at an early stage, Gavi “can only make sourcing decisions when we can be sure there will be a demand for the vaccines so they won’t go to waste”.
“Given the current demand . . . Barring a sufficient supply available, we cannot yet be certain that will be the case,” the spokesman added.