JOHANNESBURG — The first factory in Africa licensed to produce COVID-19 vaccines for the African market has not received a single order and could close that production line in a few weeks if the situation does not change, according to company executives. Aspen Pharmacare. .
The factory, in the South African coastal city of Gqeberha, formerly known as Port Elizabeth, was celebrated as a solution to the continent’s uneven access to vaccines when it announced a deal to start manufacturing Covid vaccines in November 2021.
But no buyers have emerged, as Africa’s slow rollout of vaccines has left health agencies with a backlog of supplies. Commercial production never began, in what officials say is an ominous sign for other African countries that had considered making Covid-19 vaccines.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, many African countries have fallen far behind much of the world in vaccinating their people, with some countries having difficulty distributing the doses they received.
Less than 20 percent of the total population in Africa is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Officials and politicians blamed rich countries for stockpiling vaccine doses when vaccines first became available. Countries that rely on vaccine donations were at the back of the queue. Developing the capacity to manufacture vaccine doses in Africa was presented as a solution to this vaccine inequity, as well as a way to prepare for future pandemics.
South African drugmaker Aspen Pharmacare drew praise when it signed a deal with Johnson & Johnson in November last year that would allow it to produce and market the single-dose vaccine as Aspenovax. The vaccine, identical to the one created by Johnson & Johnson, was intended for the African market.
But the initial enthusiasm has not translated into purchases, for complicated reasons.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking Thursday at a global summit on the pandemic hosted by the White House, blamed “international agencies” for not buying vaccines from a pioneering African manufacturer.
“This immediately devalues the entire process of local manufacturing and local production of vaccines. This, ladies and gentlemen, must change,” Ramaphosa said.
Gavi, an international nonprofit agency that administers vaccine purchase agreements for low-income countries through the Covax alliance, said in a statement that its existing contract with Johnson & Johnson has prevented it from buying directly from Aspen.
Gavi said in the statement: “Covax is still under contract with J&J and we would be very happy for the doses we still expect Aspen to supply. We have communicated this to J&J. However, again, this is solely a decision that rests with J&J.”
Vaccine procurement contracts are protected by confidentiality agreements that have made the process opaque.
Johnson & Johnson has not yet responded to a request for comment.
US regulators have restricted the use of the Johnson & Johnson injection, preferring instead the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. But recent evidence suggests that, over time, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is preventing infection and disease just as well as others, and may offer longer-lasting protection.
Stavros Nicolaou, Aspen’s head of strategic business development, said that if there are no orders in the next six weeks, Aspen plans to repurpose the sterile production line to produce anesthetics and other drugs.
“That goodwill” that accompanied the initial launch, Mr. Nicolau said, “has not been matched by requests from multilateral procurement agencies.”
In discussions with multilateral agencies, Aspen expected orders to arrive in early 2022, in time to start producing commercial batches of the Aspenovax vaccine in late March.
But by then, the agencies had obtained enough vaccine from other sources to begin large-scale vaccination campaigns. Those efforts were hampered by logistical and other problems that prevented injections from reaching people’s arms, leaving the continent with an overdose that continues today.
As a result, the African Union and agencies such as Covax have also not placed new orders in recent months with other manufacturers.
Dr. John Nkengasong, outgoing head of the African Union Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recalled a 2021 summit in which thousands participated in a Zoom call to pledge to scale up vaccine manufacturing in Africa.
Dr Nkengasong, who said he has been in talks with Aspen and African leaders to find a solution, described the lack of orders as “very worrying” and added that it would discourage other African companies from developing their capacity to manufacture Covid. -19 vaccinations.
“If these companies were not supported, all the pronouncement and commitment that we all made at the height of this pandemic would not have really been translated into action,” he said.
John Eligon contributed reporting from Johannesburg and lauren maccarthy contributed reporting from New York.