Africa’s top Covid vaccine plant faces uncertain future after production halted

Production at Africa’s largest Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing plant 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.

Executives at Aspen Pharmacare, a South Africa-based pharmaceutical company that has produced about 180mn doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, fear they will have to permanently shut their two Covid jab production lines, unless a new order comes in shortly.

Stavros Nicolaou, a senior executive at Aspen, told the Financial Times the future of production at the plant was “in doubt”.

“If there are no orders immediately. . . the capacity that has been established by Aspen. . . is no longer sustainable, and no one is going to keep production lines going,” he said. “If Aspen can’t produce Covid vaccines, what hope is there for others.”

I have added that 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 per cent of all vaccines administered in Africa locally by 2040, up from just 1 per cent now.

The lack of local vaccine production and a bidding war with richer, western nations meant countries in the world’s poorest continent have been last in line for twos. Building local vaccine manufacturing capacity is seen as crucial to plans to avoid a repeat of the inequality in the event of a new variant or pandemic.

Last year, Aspen signed a licensing deal with J&J to bottle and sell the single-shot jab across Africa. The drugmaker also announced plans to scale up vaccine manufacturing capacity to 1.3bn doses a year by 2024, up from 300mn now.

But an oversupply of Covid-19 jabs has stymied the drugmaker’s plans, as J&J have not requested Aspen to make more doses and no orders have been made for Aspenovax, the licensed vaccine.

The last doses were bottled at the Aspen facility in late March. The halt in production at Aspen follows the decision by India’s Serum Institute to stop manufacturing Covishield, its version of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, last December. The Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine maker, said it had 200mn doses of the shot in stockpile.

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 240mn 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.

“We cannot back away from our pronouncements and commitments that we made at the height of this pandemic,” said Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “If this company fails, it sends a very poor signal about the target we all agreed to develop vaccine manufacturing in Africa.”

BioNTech will set up production facilities on the continent this year and the World Health Organization’s mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub is sharing the formula for Moderna’s jab with six African countries.

Uncertainty about Aspen’s future “rams home the point that you can’t build and sustain facilities that only produce pandemic vaccines”, according to Patrick Tippoo, executive director of the Africa Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative.

“We have enough Covid vaccines in the world,” he said. “It’s about ensuring that the capacities that we have developed or enlarged are sustained over the long-term by other vaccines so that when the next pandemic strikes those capacities are available.”

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