Aspen was the first company on the continent to produce COVID-19 vaccines — the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine and is still the only company producing them at scale for the continent.

South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare might be forced to shut down its production of COVID-19 vaccines due to what they term a lack of orders.

Aspen Pharmacare senior director Stavros Nicolaou said the next six weeks will reveal whether or not they will have to permanently stop production of the jab and repurpose the facility to produce anesthetics.

“If we do not receive orders, we cannot sustain those two lines. We are going to repurpose back to making anesthetics or any other product but then we will lose the capacity for Covid-19 vaccines for the continent.

“If we do not get orders from COVAX or Gavi, which are the global procurement facilities that procure these vaccines for Africa, we will have to eventually repurpose back into producing something else so that we can sustain the lines,” said Nicolaou.

According to the deputy director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, this is happening because the system “skews very heavily away from African producers.”

He said that large procurers of vaccines have failed to commit to purchasing doses from African producers such as Aspen.

Key to the success of local vaccine manufacturing is markets — these manufacturers need their vaccines purchased.

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Dr Ouma further said “we have a market in Africa. Those who are purchasing for Africa must change the way in which they purchase these vaccines so that our African producers are first in line to have their products being bought.”

Aspen was the first company on the continent to produce COVID-19 vaccines — the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine and is still the only company producing them at scale for the continent.

It was the African Union’s first major deal, signed in March 2021, to secure its own COVID-19 vaccines, as countries across the continent faced major delays in accessing vaccines due to high-income countries hoarding global supplies.

Initial shipments went out from Aspen to African nations mid last year — available for countries to purchase in addition to vaccines received for free from COVAX, the international initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

COVAX has provided many African nations with free COVID-19 vaccines during the pandemic. But the initiative leaned too heavily on doses from the Serum Institute of India.

However, many African nations were left for a large part of last year without doses as the pandemic ravaged their populations after the Indian government restricted the exportation of COVID-19 vaccines in March last year.

But in the last few months of 2021, African nations began to secure greater supplies of vaccines from COVAX and other sources, and the demand for COVID-19 vaccines lessened.

During this time, Aspen also received a licensing deal to package and sell the vaccine across Africa. This makes its Aspenovax the first African COVID-19 vaccine on the market.

Still, only 17 percent of the population across the continent is fully vaccinated for COVID-19, according to Ouma. 

The AU launched its Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing last year seeking African nations to produce 60 percent of all vaccines used in the continent by 2040.

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