Hailed as an answer to Africa’s struggle to get access to vaccines, Africa’s first Covid-19 vaccine factory, which has not received a single order, will now be adapted to produce other drugs, according to media reports.
Last year, South African drug maker Aspen Pharmacare signed a deal with US drug maker Johnson & Johnson to produce the Covid vaccine and market the single-dose vaccine as Aspenovax. The vaccine, identical to the one created by Johnson & Johnson, was intended for the African market.
The vaccines were being made at a factory near Cape Town owned by South African pharmaceuticals firm Aspen Pharmacare. But lack of demand is forcing the company to produce other drugs, BBC reported.
According to Dr Stavros Nicolaou, a senior director at Aspen, the agreement assumed there would be demand for the vaccines from the World Health Organization (WHO).
But as that never materialised, and to sustain the production line, the equipment would now be used to make anaesthetics instead, he explained.
Covid vaccine production has not been totally abandoned, Aspen would produce it “only on an emergency basis”, Nicolaou said.
The factory, in the coastal South African city of Gqeberha, was celebrated as a solution to the continent’s unequal access to vaccines during the pandemic, New York Times reported.
Lack of demand coupled with the slow distribution of vaccines in Africa left health agencies with a backlog of supplies. Commercial production never started, in what officials say is an ominous sign for other African countries that had considered manufacturing Covid vaccines, the report said.
The African Union has a target for 60 per cent of all vaccines administered on the continent to be produced locally by 2040. Currently, the figure is just 1 per cent.
Although there had been calls globally for Africa to produce more of its own vaccines during the pandemic, Nicolau said this could only happen if producers had support from international agencies, such as WHO.
President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa also blamed “international agencies” for failing to buy vaccines from a pioneering African manufacturer, NYT reported.
“This immediately just devalues the whole process of local manufacturing and local production of vaccines. This, ladies and gentlemen, must change,” Ramaphosa said.
Aspen was hoping that orders would roll out at the beginning of 2022, to begin commercial production of Aspenovax. But by then, agencies including the WHO and Gavi, a global non-profit that manages vaccine purchase deals for low-income countries through the Covax alliance, had already secured enough vaccines from other sources to begin large-scale vaccination drives.
Aspen’s vaccine “came very late in the process,” said Dr. Abdou Salam Gueye, director of emergency preparedness and response for the WHO’s Africa region.
The global health agency and its partners have shifted their focus to delivering vaccines to patients, rather than procuring additional vaccine doses, he added.