South African firm may close COVID vaccine plant

JOHANNESBURG (AP) – The first factory to produce COVID-19 vaccines in Africa said it has not received enough orders and may stop production within weeks, in what a senior World Health Organization (WHO) official described on Thursday as a “failure” in efforts to achieve vaccine equity.

South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare said that it cannot let its large-scale sterile manufacturing facilities sit idle, and will return instead to making anesthetics.

At the outset of the COVID pandemic, the company shifted its production and achieved capacity to produce more than 200 million doses annually of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine.

“It was widely hailed as a great achievement for Africa, a game-changer for the continent. But it has not been followed up with orders. We have not received any orders from the big multilateral agencies,” Senior Executive for Strategic Trade Development at Aspen Pharmacare Stavros Nicolaou told The Associated Press (AP) on Thursday.

“COVAX has placed orders for 2.1 billion doses of COVID vaccines and not a single one has been placed with Aspen or any other African manufacturers,” said Nicolaou, referring to the United Nations-backed effort to distribute coronavirus vaccines to poorer countries.

“It’s a cardinal sin to have valuable sterile manufacturing capacity and not put it to use,” said Nicolaou. “We cannot leave this production capacity idle. We will have to repivot from vaccine manufacturing and return to producing anesthetics unless in the short term we get firm orders for our COVID-19 vaccine.”

Nicolaou said the lack of orders “is not great for Africa’s ambition to reduce its dependence on imported vaccines from 99 to 40 per cent”.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa heads a government delegation on a visit to ASPEN Pharmaceuticals in South Africa. PHOTO: AP