South Africa: ‘Covid crisis is stimulating vaccine independence for Africa’ – Aspen Pharma

By Xolisa Phillip, in Johannesburg
Posted on Tuesday, 3 August 2021 12:43

A health worker prepares a vaccine against Covid-19 in Hammanskraal, South Africa, Tuesday, July 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Alet Pretorius)

It has taken a pandemic as severe as Covid-19 to jostle Sub-Saharan Africa into action to bolster its vaccine production capacity and capability, argues Stavros Nicolaou of Aspen, Africa's biggest drug company. For the first time in the region’s history, the continent is pooling its resources and aggregating volumes to mount a collective and co-ordinated response for its coronavirus vaccine needs.

Previously, Africa’s approach in this area was disparate and fragmented despite the region bearing a disproportionate disease burden compared to other continents, says Stavros Nicolaou, the senior executive for strategic trade development at Aspen, the largest pharmaceutical company in Africa.

Nicolaou, a trained pharmacist, was part of the Aspen team that introduced Africa’s first generic antiretroviral drug in 2003, at the height of the HIV/Aids epidemic. The Aspen executive also witnessed the ravages of the deadly multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (TB).

South Africa has the highest incidence burden of both HIV/Aids and TB. More recently, the country has had the highest positive Covid-19 infection rate on the continent. It is currently experiencing its third Covid-19 wave.

The disjointed handling of vaccine and pharmaceutical needs meant that the continent relinquished its volumes to other markets and geographies.

India was one such place. The Asian country spotted the gap and used it to build its own pharmaceutical industry, created jobs for its population and then proceeded to export the volumes back to Africa.

“Nowhere are vaccines more required and more relevant than in Africa,” Nicolaou tells The Africa Report, who wants to turn this dynamic around.

Globally, 3.9 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered but only 1%, or less, of that quantum has found its way into African arms. This reality “demonstrates a gross inequality, and the vaccine inequality that continues to pervade the global system,” he adds.

Shot in the arm

However, the tide is turning – albeit gradually. There is now broad recognition that successfully manufacturing vaccines, or pharmaceuticals, requires massive economies of scale. Hence the establishment of the Strive Masiyiwa-headed Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, a centralised procurement platform that aggregates volumes and pools financial resources.

That places the region on a better footing to leverage its volumes in order to procure products from African pharmaceutical companies.

Additionally, the World Health Organization (WHO) has chosen South Africa as the destination to set up the first Covid-19 vaccine technology transfer hub. The WHO is reportedly also in advanced discussions with Senegal and Tunisia for a similar arrangement.

In the WHO-backed hub model, Cape Town-based Biovac will manufacture the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

“Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of local production to address health emergencies, strengthen regional health security and expand sustainable access to health products,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General, when news of the technology transfer hub agreement broke.

Africa’s first home soil dose

Last September, Aspen concluded a deal with Johnson and Johnson to contract manufacture the single-dose coronavirus vaccines for and on behalf of the American company. The transfer of technology and other knowhow began weeks later. In the first quarter of 2021, Aspen entered into a validation of manufacture phase, an important quality check step.

Now, Aspen has “made product available to South Africa, the rest of Africa and other jurisdictions out of our Gqeberha (formerly known as Port Elizabeth) facility. Aspen has produced the first Covid-19 vaccine on the continent for the continent,” Nicolaou says.

“We are also at the start of discussions with Johnson and Johnson to receive a licence for the product, which means Africa will own its vaccine; its own equivalent of Johnson and Johnson,” he adds.

Aspen invested R3bn into the Gqeberha facility to make it fit for the task.

At this point in time, however, Aspen contract manufactures for Johnson and Johnson. That means Johnson and Johnson has an agreement with the African Union (AU) vaccine platform. In turn, the platform has procured vaccines from Johnson and Johnson.

“We manufacture the product. Johnson and Johnson are the ones that do the distribution, and have done the distribution, into the AU. There is also a bilateral agreement between Johnson and Johnson and South Africa,” says Nicolaou.

“These are the types of initiatives that will start giving the continent capacity and capability, and lessen the dependence on the rest of the world for our vaccines. We don’t have to go around begging the rest of the world for Covid-19 vaccines,” he adds.

Strength in numbers

The Aspen executive cautioned against a South Africa-centric focus, and instead emphasised the advantages of a collective, regional effort.

“Aspen is looking to work with other partners on the continent, so that we can expand capacity. You’ve got to work through and around hubs,” Nicolaou points out. “One Africa, one Covid-19 vaccine – that’s our mantra,” he adds.

In addition to South Africa, Aspen has plants in Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana. The company’s footprint also extends to Germany, the Netherlands and France. “We’ve got a massive plant in France, actually, it’s very important for Europe,” says the Aspen executive.

“This crisis, for me, has meant that Africa is for the first time is getting itself into a position where it can be less dependent and more self-sufficient with vaccines. Hopefully, this extends to other pharmaceuticals. The African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement is a catalyst for all of this,” adds Nicolaou.

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