(Bloomberg) – Africa’s bid to build a vaccine industry after standing at the back of the queue in the global scramble to get Covid-19 vaccines has fallen at the first hurdle.
As the Omicron variant spread in South Africa late last year, the continent’s largest pharmaceutical company was negotiating a deal to manufacture a Covid-19 vaccine under license from Johnson & Johnson. Five months later and after beginning production in March, Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd. not received a single order. Now it is considering using the facility to produce anesthetics.
The lack of business is staggering for executives at Aspen and other companies building vaccine facilities in Africa. Moderna Inc., Pfizer Inc, and biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong have all announced plans to produce shots on a continent where just 15.9% of the country’s 1.2 billion people have completed a coronavirus vaccination course.
“There have been many calls from both the West and Africa that the best way to solve the problem is to build up our own local vaccine production capacity,” said Stavros Nicolaou, Aspen’s head of strategic trading. What happened next “sends an incredibly bad message,” he said.
The result also comes as a blow to African governments, which had hoped newly built facilities would not just be used for the coronavirus. They could also have been adapted to fight future epidemics and neglected diseases like malaria and HIV.
Aspen first held talks with John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization and the World Bank about the prospects for an African-made vaccine. The plan was to use its recently built sterile facilities to do a Covid-19 intake.
The company signed an agreement with J&J in September 2020 to sign the US firm’s candidate. Aspen began training about 500 employees to work on the Covid vaccine line, and production at Aspen’s site in the South African city of Gqeberha began in early 2021.
It would be the first vaccine Aspen has ever made, and the company hoped to later expand production to other vaccines needed across the continent, almost all of which are imported.
One problem was that, under the J&J contract, Aspen had no say in where its recordings went, and many left Africa despite it being realized that the continent was struggling to get the supplies it needed.
The ultimate prize was that Aspen made its shot under license rather than under contract, allowing it to decide on the recipients of the cans it produced.
This followed on from the African Union policy document, which stated that imports of all vaccines to Africa should be reduced from the current 99% to 40% of the vaccines needed by 2040. New locations were planned and it became clear that the AU viewed the production of Covid recordings as a first step towards this goal.
Aspen’s vaccine, which uses the J&J substance but is branded Aspenovax, was the first African-made Covid-19 vaccine for Africans. But as the world was inundated with doses fewer people were keen to take, Covax, the global initiative designed to bring syringes to poorer countries and African governments, held back from placing orders.
In 2020 and 2021, “we were extremely excited to purchase vaccines manufactured by Aspen on the African continent,” but J&J chose to supply from plants in other regions, said Gavi, the global vaccine alliance and a key one Covax supporter, in a response to questions. “We are not currently purchasing additional cans.”
The lack of orders is a “financial failure,” Abdou Salam Gueye, director of regional emergency preparedness and response for the WHO’s Africa office, said in a conference call this month. “We will learn from it.”
While the WHO has made no financial contribution to Aspen’s company, the World Bank and government agencies in the US, France and Germany announced 600 million euros ($626 million) in funding for the company in June and said it needed it to ensure that vaccines are manufactured on the African continent.
“The situation in Aspen is very worrying,” Nkengasong said on a conference call this month. “What about the 10 or so countries that have participated in vaccine production in Africa?”
In a statement after a May 10 meeting, African leaders urged Gavi, Covax and governments on the continent to prioritize the purchase of vaccines made from African plants.
The Biovac Institute, a South African company in partnership with Pfizer that packages and distributes 100 million doses of that company’s Covid vaccine annually in Africa, has spent about 300 million rand ($19 million) preparing it. Morena Makhoana, chief executive officer of the Cape Town-based company, said he was concerned about what was happening in Aspen.
With discussions on the licensing agreement between Aspen and J&J in the pipeline for more than a year, “the world at large cannot say that we didn’t know there was going to be Aspen capacity,” Nicolaou said. Unless Gavi and Covax show interest soon, “the need for local manufacturing will remain just a political nicety without substance,” he said.
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