Aspen may close Covid vaccine line within weeks as talks drag

Aspen Pharmacare Holdings needs clear commitments within weeks from African governments for orders of its Covid-19 vaccine or will recommit that production line to more in-demand anesthetics.

The continent’s biggest drug maker has been let down by the lack of interest in the shots – a locally made version of Johnson & Johnson’s dose, according to head of strategic trade, Stavros Nicolaou.

Read: SA Covid vaccine plant may shut on a lack of orders

“We had counted on, and were assured, that the regional manufacturing platform was critical and would be supported,” Nicolaou said by phone.

Aspen’s manufacturing plant in Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape, which currently makes a locally made version of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine. Image: Supplied

“We had banked on these initial volumes to give us the time to enable us to pivot to other vaccines.”

Aspen is only making a “trickle” of coronavirus vaccines off the line, said Nicolaou, and has not had any orders for its own-branded shot earmarked for sale directly in Africa.

The situation is a setback for Africa’s plans to catch up with more developed countries’ Covid-19 vaccination rates, and prepare for the possibility of future pandemics.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had been part of a movement that criticised rich nations for hoarding vaccines and tried to force pharmaceutical companies to share inoculation recipes, though take up remains relatively low.

Aspen CEO sees own-brand Covid vaccine as step to new products
Stop hoarding Covid vaccines, Ramaphosa tells rich countries

Aspen understands that African countries now have more shots than they have been able to administer, keeping the line open for the newly-named Aspenovax vaccine may not make economic sense if orders are not imminent, Nicolaou said.

John Nkengasong, director of Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, has said talks about how to raise demand for Covid-19 vaccines are underway and has appealed to African countries to place orders with local manufacturers.

“The reality is that if Aspen cannot obtain production, what hope is there for others?” Nicolaou said.

© 2022 Bloomberg