With Africa struggling to vaccinate its populations against COVID-19, the World Bank – along with government institutions from the USA, Germany, and France – has intervened to loan South African firm Aspen Pharmacare EUR 600 million (USD 712 million) with the aim of increasing vaccine manufacturing know how across the continent.


The loan, joint financed by French development institution Proparco, German development finance institution DEG, and the US International Development Finance Corporation aims to boost Aspen’s, and Africa’s, ability to develop and manufacture vaccines. Speaking at the announcement, World Bank President David Malpass said that there is “surging” demand for vaccines from lower-income nations and that “We [the World Bank] want countries to know the financing is available.” To date, the World Bank has assisted 51 countries on vaccines, with donations totalling over USD four billion.


Aspen, Africa’s largest pharma company, already has a deal in place with global giant J&J for the formulation, filling, and secondary packaging of its vaccine in Africa. Aspen’s contract is to supply 31 million doses of the J&J vaccine to South Africa and roughly 240 million to the rest of Africa. The fact that the J&J vaccine is one-shot, rather than the more common two, is significant in that it makes it a lot easier to manage in remote rural areas.


The issue of vaccine access in developing countries has been much debated in recent months, with countries in Europe and North America accused of hoarding vaccines. South Africa and India have argued for a global vaccine IP waiver; a proposal which has since gained the support of the US but which has been roundly rejected by the global pharmaceutical industry who argue that removing IP protections would be neither a viable short- or long-term solution.


However, something clearly needs to change with lower-income countries accounting for only a fraction of the roughly three billion COVID-19 vaccine doses administered globally. South Africa, the continent’s most industrialised economy, has partly vaccinated only four percent of its entire 60 million population, and Niger, Africa’s most populous nation, has delivered just 1.7 doses per 100 people (compared to 98 doses per 100 in the US).


Even beyond the pressing threat of COVID, there is a growing recognition of the need for more domestic pharma production in Africa; most sub-Saharan nations import over 70 percent of the drugs that they consume.


Aspen will be putting the cash towards ramping up its current vaccine output and better prepare for future crises. The company encountered trouble earlier this year when 75 million doses of the J&J vaccine had to be discarded following reports that workers at Emergent BioSolutions in Baltimore accidentally mixed up some of the ingredients. Substances that came from the affected US plant were shipped to Aspen’s Gqeberha plant and used in manufacturing local vaccines.


Given that this Aspen facility is slated to supply 220 million J&J vaccines to the African Union, up to 32 percent of the supply for the entire region, its smooth operation is of great significance to Africa’s successful navigation out of the COVID-19 crisis.