JOHANNESBURG – The first factory in Africa licensed to produce Covid-19 vaccines for the African market has not received a single order and may shut down if the situation does not change within weeks, according to executives of the company, Aspen Pharmacare General Chat Chat Lounge
The factory, in the coastal South African city of Gqeberha, formerly known as Port Elizabeth, was celebrated as a solution to the continent’s unequal access to vaccines when it announced a deal to begin manufacturing Covid vaccines in November of 2021.
But no purchasers have appeared, as the slow distribution of vaccines in Africa has left a backlog of supplies with health agencies. Commercial production never started, what officials say is an ominous sign for other African countries that had considered manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, many African countries have lagged far behind in the world of getting their people vaccinated – and some countries have had difficulty distributing what doses they did.
Less than 20 percent of the total population in Africa is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Officials and politicians blamed hoarding vaccines for wealthy countries when vaccines first became available. Countries reliant on donations of vaccines were at the back of the line. Building vaccine doses in Africa was billed as a solution to this vaccine inequality as well as a way to prepare for future pandemics.
South African drug maker Aspen Pharmacare was lauded when it signed a deal with Johnson & Johnson in November last year that would allow it to produce and market single-dose vaccine as Aspenovax. The vaccine, similar to the vaccine created by Johnson & Johnson, was intended for the African market.
But the initial enthusiasm has not led to purchases, for complicated reasons.
South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking on Thursday at a global summit organized by the White House, blamed “international agencies” for failing to buy vaccines from a leading African manufacturer.
“It immediately devalues the entire process of local manufacturing and local production of vaccines. This, ladies and gentlemen, must change, “Mr. Ramaphosa said.
Gavi, an international nonprofit agency that manages vaccine purchasing deals for low-income countries through the Covax alliance, said in a statement that its existing contract with Johnson & Johnson has prevented it from buying from Aspen directly.
Gavi said in the statement: “Covax is still under contract with J&J and we would be very happy for any doses that we are still expecting to be supplied by Aspen. We have communicated this to J&J. However, again this is the only decision that rests with J&J. “
Vaccine procurement contracts are protected by nondisclosure agreements that have made the process opaque.
Johnson & Johnson has not yet responded to a request for comment.
US regulators have restricted use of the Johnson & Johnson shot, preferring the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines instead. But recent evidence suggests that over time, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is about preventing infections and illnesses as effectively as others, and may prove to offer more durable protection.
Stavros Nicolaou, Aspen’s head of strategic trade development, said if there were no orders in the next six weeks, Aspen plans to repurpose a sterile production line to produce anesthetics and other drugs.
“That will be good” that accompanies the initial launch, said Mr. Nicolau, has “not been matched with orders from the multilateral procurement agencies.”
In talks with multilateral agencies, Aspen was hoping orders would roll out at the beginning of 2022, in time for it to start producing commercial batches of the Aspenovax vaccine by the end of March.
But by then agencies had already secured enough vaccines from other sources to begin large-scale vaccination drives. Those efforts were hobbled by logistical and other issues that prevented jabs from making it into people’s arms, leaving the continent with a glut of doses that continues today.
As a result, the African Union and agencies like Covax have not placed new orders in recent months with other manufacturers either.
Dr. John Nkengasong, the outgoing head of the African Union’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recalled a 2021 summit where thousands participated in a Zoom call to pledge to build Africa’s vaccine manufacturing.
Dr. Nkengasong, who said he has been in talks with Aspen as well as African leaders to find a solution, described the lack of orders as “very worrying,” adding that it would discourage other African companies from developing their capacity to manufacture Covid-19. vaccines.
“If those companies are not supported, the whole pronouncement and commitment that we have all made at this height of this pandemic would not really have been translated into facts,” he said.
John Eligon contributed reporting from Johannesburg and Lauren McCarthy contributed reporting from New York.