South African firm nears deal to sell J&J Covid-19 shot across Africa

The deal would allow Aspen to bottle and market the Johnson & Johnson vaccine across Africa under the brand name Aspenovax. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The South African drugmaker Aspen Pharmacare announced on Tuesday (Nov 300 that it was finalising the first agreement to control production of a Covid-19 vaccine in Africa.

The deal, with Johnson & Johnson, would allow Aspen to bottle and market the Johnson & Johnson vaccine across Africa under the brand name Aspenovax.

Aspen would then have the right to determine to whom the vaccine will be sold, in what quantities and at what price.

This agreement stops short of giving Aspen rights to produce the drug substance - that is, the actual contents of the vaccine.

Instead, Johnson & Johnson will direct other facilities to make the ingredients to send to Aspen for the company to blend into vaccine doses.

Stephen Saad, Aspen's chief executive, said his company intended to become a drug substance producer but it would take two years to reach the goal.

Johnson & Johnson confirmed in a statement that it had reached "an advanced stage in its discussions" with Aspen about the agreement.

The control over intellectual property of Covid vaccines has become a point of increasing contention in the debate over how best to address the huge gap in vaccine access in Africa.

Aspen already bottles Johnson & Johnson Covid vaccines under a previous agreement. Earlier this year, millions of doses bottled at Aspen's plant in the city of Gqeberha, South Africa were exported to Europe and other parts of the world, at a time when many African countries had vaccinated fewer than 5 per cent of their citizens.

Because Aspen was only a contract manufacturer, it had no say on where it was shipping the doses it had bottled. The arrangement generated harsh criticism after it was revealed by The New York Times.

The new agreement could avert a similar situation in the future. Strive Masiyiwa, the African Union's special envoy for Covid who has been trying to broker greater vaccine access for the continent, said in a web telecast announcing the deal between Aspen and Johnson & Johnson that it would help him "sleep easier."

"This vaccine is going to be produced as a licensed product which means that when we want to talk about purchasing vaccines, we go to Aspen, we don't go to J&J," he said. "It gives us one of the major things that we have called for, which is the security of supply, which we have not had as a continent."

Masiyiwa described this agreement as the first step toward Africa's development of a vaccine production industry like that in India.

He said that the bulk buyers of vaccines, including Gavi, the global health organisation that supplies childhood shots to Unicef, must start looking to African industrialists for vaccines procured for Africa.

Otherwise, he said, "we will not deal with the problem Africa found itself in, which is to be forced to the back of the queue. Those with production assets are the ones who control the supply of vaccines."

Aspen currently produces 20 million doses per month of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which the company is supplying to the African Union to fulfill the bloc's supply deal with Johnson & Johnson.

Saad said that when a new Aspen production facility comes online in March, that will expand production to 35 million doses per month.

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