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South African company Aspen Pharmacare’s COVID vaccine production is halted due to low demand

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South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare will halt manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines from the end of this month due to a lack of orders, a senior executive said, further eroding Africa’s already low dose-making capacity.

Aspen currently produces vaccines for Johnson & Johnson. In March, the company reached an agreement to manufacture, price and sell its private label version of the shot for African markets.

This deal was seen as groundbreaking for a continent frustrated by sluggish western handouts. But even though only one-fifth of adults in Africa are fully vaccinated, demand for vaccines has remained elusive, according to the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Aspen has not received any orders for its Aspenovax vaccine and has not received any orders from Johnson & Johnson after August.

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J&J did not respond to an email requesting comment.

“The thing here is that we don’t know if we will get any more orders from J&J. But we are finishing production of what we have,” Stavros Nicolaou, group senior executive at Aspen, told Reuters.

A man in Johannesburg administers doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in South Africa on December 8, 2021.  Demand for vaccines in South Africa is extremely low, resulting in the country's Aspen Pharmacare shutting down vaccine manufacturing.

A man in Johannesburg administers doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in South Africa on December 8, 2021. Demand for vaccines in South Africa is extremely low, resulting in the country’s Aspen Pharmacare shutting down vaccine manufacturing.
(Emmanuel Croset/AFP via Getty Images)

Without new orders, Aspen would have to shut down its entire annual production capacity of 450 million cans, he said.

Aspen could get an indication from J&J by September if new orders are in the pipeline, Nicolaou said. But he warned that this might not be enough.

The majority of the company’s COVID-19 production lines were to produce Aspenovax for Africa. Initial plans aimed to increase annual capacity to 700 million cans by February and further expansion to 1 billion cans to meet expected demand.

However, the existing Aspenovax production lines are currently idle. Without Aspenovax orders, Aspen would be forced to convert production lines to make anesthetics, Nicolaou said.

“Then Africa loses its COVID vaccine capacity, the only one that really exists on the continent,” he said. “Of course, we cannot continue with idle lines indefinitely.

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