Roughly half of Africa’s 1.1 billion people lack regular access to even the most essential medicines and most of Sub-Saharan Africa depends on imports which make up as much as 70 to 90 percent of the medicines consumed there. As the COVID-19 pandemic further demonstrated this dependence and the vulnerability of the continent’s supply chain, one African company, Aspen Pharmacare, has looked to help secure the continent’s medicine supply chain by manufacturing vaccines in, and for, Africa.
Even before the pandemic, initiatives such as the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Plan for Africa (PMPA) set out to build African manufacturing capabilities and strengthen procurement and supply chain management systems. Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing (PAVM) has since created a plan to increase the percentage of African-produced vaccines used in the region from less than one percent to 60 percent by 2040. For its part, Africa’s largest pharmaceutical company, South Africa-headquartered Aspen Pharmacare, has made consistent contributions to the efforts to boost manufacturing and improve access on the continent.
Bridging the COVID-19 Vaccine Gap
What this pandemic has clearly demonstrated is local capacity solves local problems
Stavros Nicolaou, group senior executive of strategic trade, Aspen
When COVID-19 hit, South African firm Aspen, founded in 1997, was already manufacturing medicines in Africa. The company had pioneered the first generic antiretroviral on the continent twenty years earlier and had become the largest supplier of antiretrovirals (ARVs) in Africa.
As the COVID-19 pandemic took a disproportionate toll on the continent, the company struck an initial deal with Johnson & Johnson to package its vaccine at Aspen’s South African facility and then went on to sign a deal with J&J to manufacture, distribute and sell the shot in Africa under Aspen’s proprietary name, Aspenovax.
At the time, the accord was seen as a game-changing opportunity to address the vaccine inequality that has plagued the African continent, which at the time had received just three percent of the world’s vaccine supplies.
“Africa’s own vaccine, has become a reality! This has been achieved through tremendous teamwork and collaboration between Johnson & Johnson and Aspen. Through this agreement and their earlier actions, Johnson & Johnson has demonstrated its commitment to our continent. Initially by choosing Aspen, located in Africa, as a core manufacturing partner, and then by showing resolve and dedication to a technical transfer process during the most stringent lockdown periods of the COVID outbreak,” said Stephen Saad, Aspen group chief executive, at the time of the agreement.
“What this pandemic has clearly demonstrated is local capacity solves local problems,” Stavros Nicolaou, group senior executive of strategic trade, added.
By August 2022, however, despite the fact that only a fifth of adults in Africa were fully vaccinated, according to the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the demand for shots had declined and the company’s COVID-19 vaccine production lines risked going idle.
We are proud to be part of an effort that will secure critically needed vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa, for Africa so that it can be ready when it faces future epidemic or pandemic threats
Richard Hatchett, CEO, CEPI
Yet Aspen did not end its push for African manufacturing with the COVID-19 vaccine. To safeguard local production once the need for COVID-19 jabs had diminished, in August, 2022, the company signed a deal with the Serum Institute of India for the production of a series of routine vaccines.
Under the agreement, four routine paediatric vaccines: pneumococcal vaccine, rotavirus vaccine, polyvalent meningococcal vaccine and hexavalent vaccine, would be produced in South Africa with APIs supplied by the Serum Institute. To support the 10-year agreement, Aspen received grant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).
“The partnership represents an important step for preventing the kinds of gross inequities of access to life-saving vaccines that emerged during the COVID pandemic,” said CEPI’s chief executive officer, Richard Hatchett. “We are proud to be part of an effort that will secure critically needed vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa, for Africa so that it can be ready when it faces future epidemic or pandemic threats.”
The deal was further cemented in December 2022, when Aspen secured an additional USD 30 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and CEPI to support its production capabilities for routine and outbreak vaccines for Africa through the agreement with the Serum Institute.
Stephen Saad, Aspen Group Chief Executive, said, “We thank both CEPI and the Gates Foundation for their commitment to support regional manufacture for Africa. Their commitment, together with our partnership with Serum, is an important first step in ensuring expanded and enduring equitable access to a pipeline of medicines and vaccines manufactured in Africa for Africans.”
More to be Done
Many view the agreement as an important step for African manufacturing, including Dr Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, deputy director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. “It has responded to African Union heads of state and government calls that 30 percent of our continent’s requirements for human vaccines be procured from Africa manufacturers. And we look forward to this being motivation for more expanded manufacturing of vaccines here on the continent of Africa,” he said.
Others see it as a drop in the ocean when less than one percent of vaccines used on the African continent contain any local manufacture. “I think it’s a great step towards realizing the improvements in the African continent’s manufacturing capacity, particularly looking at vaccines. But I think we could do with a lot more and even a full sharing of technology, so that we don’t find ourselves waiting in line for vaccines that are coming from high-income countries,” commented Candice Sehoma from Doctors Without Borders.
Other pharma companies not based in Africa have also made strides to build manufacturing there. Pfizer, for example, has a partnership with Biovac in South Africa and has said it would provide its patented products to low and middle-income countries, starting with specific partnerships on the African continent. Meanwhile, Moderna has committed to building a new facility in Kenya.
Achal Prabhala, coordinator of the Access IBSA project remained sceptical about the impact of these pharma industry initiatives. “I think it’s a clamour of press release more than a clamour of action,” he said.