South African firm Aspen has inked a deal with Johnson & Johnson for the technical transfer and proposed commercial manufacture of their COVID-19 vaccine candidate, Ad26.COV2-S, boosting the company’s share price as well as its global profile.
Aspen is best known internationally for bringing generic antiretrovirals for HIV to Africa, thereby serving patient populations without access to expensive originator drugs. Since then, the firm has pursued a unique business model focused on inorganic growth via acquisition with the aim of quickly internalising other companies’ products that have not managed to attain full potential.
We are particularly pleased to be given the opportunity of providing assistance for patients in need across the world from our South African base
Stephen Saad, CEO, Aspen
In the recently announced J&J tie-up, Aspen will perform formulation, filling, and secondary packaging of J&J’s vaccine candidate – currently in Phase III clinical trials – at its existing sterile facility in Port Elizabeth on the country’s southern coast. In a statement, Aspen said it had invested around USD 190 million into the facility, which has the capacity to produce more than 300 million doses annually and will be used to manufacture state-of-the-art sterile drugs and vaccines, packaged into vials, ampoules and pre-filled syringes.
The firm’s CEO Stephen Saad said, “We have been selected as a vaccine partner by Johnson & Johnson and this project will receive priority focus. We are particularly pleased to be given the opportunity of providing assistance for patients in need across the world from our South African base.”
Despite the recent news of positive clinical trial results from both Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines, many stakeholders have been at pains to point out that development of any viable vaccines is only one part of the puzzle and that the real challenge will lie in manufacturing and distribution at scale. For example, Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson told the FT that “The limiting steps won’t be science in the end but in our ability to manufacture and distribute [any COVID-19 vaccine(s)] at scale with certainty of quality, efficacy, and safety.”
This challenge is compounded in developing countries, like many in Africa, that may lack the infrastructure necessary to maintain the low temperatures that mRNA vaccines – such as Pfizer/BioNTech’s and Moderna’s candidates – need. Therefore, the announcement of vaccine manufacturing in Africa with the aim of serving populations across the continent and more widely will come as welcome news.
Aspen has also been involved in repurposing existing therapeutics including anaesthetics and anti-inflammatories for COVID-19 treatment. In June, the company pledged to increase the production of dexamethasone, a generic anti-inflammatory drug that was found to help critically ill COVID-19 patients.