South Africa’s Aspen to halt COVID-19 vaccine production

The Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd. plant in Gqeberha, South Africa, on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. Aspen Pharmacare opened the southern hemisphere's largest general anesthetics manufacturing line, adding production at the South African plant where it fills and packages the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd. plant in Gqeberha, South Africa. /Getty Images

South African pharma giant Aspen will stop making COVID-19 vaccines at the end of August due to a lack of orders, according to a senior executive.

Aspen struck a deal in March to produce, price and sell its own brand version of the shot of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine which it currently produces, for the African markets.

The deal was considered a game changer for Africa.

While only a fifth of adults in Africa are fully vaccinated, demand for shots have failed to materialise, according to the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The thing here is that we don’t know if we will get further orders from J&J. But we are finishing off production of what we’ve got,” Stavros Nicolaou, group senior executive at Aspen, told Reuters, adding that without new orders, Aspen would have to shut down all of its 450 million-dose annual production capacity.

Aspen has had no orders for its Aspenovax vaccine and has not received orders from Johnson & Johnson beyond August.

According to Nicolaou, Aspen could get some indication from J&J by September as to whether any new orders are in the pipeline though those might not be enough.

The bulk of the company’s COVID-19 production lines had been meant to produce Aspenovax for Africa. Its initial plans aimed to boost annual capacity to 700 million doses by February and a further expansion to one billion doses to meet expected demand.

However, its existing Aspenovax production lines are currently sitting idle. Without Aspenovax orders, Aspen would be forced to convert production lines to manufacture anesthetics, Nicolaou said

“Then Africa loses its COVID vaccine capacity, the only one really that exists on the continent,” he said. “Of course, we cannot continue with vacant lines indefinitely. And we would have to get an order imminently.”