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Ramaphosa jumps to defence of Africa’s first Covid-19 vaccine plant

South Africa's president Cyril Ramaphosa urges more Africans to get vaccinated as Aspen Pharmacare threatens to cut half of its Covid-19 vaccine production within six weeks.


South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told state broadcaster SABC on Wednesday he had reached out to the governments of Zambia, Uganda, Malawi and Kenya to drum up orders for Aspen, after the facility said it had not received a single order for its Aspenovax vaccine.

“Myself, together with a number of African presidents… are now forming a real alliance and a plan to make sure that vaccines that would be used on our continent are bought from companies that make vaccines here,” Ramaphosa told the local TV station.

Aspen Pharmacare’s threat of closure comes as South Africa enters its fifth wave of the coronavirus.

On Thursday, the country registered the highest number of positive cases in four months, while Africa is experiencing a faster rise in infections than in previous cycles (see the graph below).

The South African firm struck a deal with Johnson & Johnson to produce 300m Covid-19 vaccine doses a year in 2021.

Ramaphosa has blamed the global vaccine network which encourages most African countries not to buy Covid-19 vaccines produced on the continent.

“The integration of Africa into the global manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccine is treated very seriously,” he said.

In March, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (AfricaCDC) warned that less than 1% of vaccines administered on the continent are manufactured locally, reducing countries’ ability to respond to pandemics and other health crises.

Africa’s Covid-19 vaccine supply comes mainly from international vaccine donations. COVAX, the worldwide initiative led by the GAVI vaccine alliance, has shipped over 430 million doses to 50 African countries.

Of all Covid-19 doses produced by the program, around three-quarters have been delivered only to Eastern and Southern African countries.

“Most countries in Africa, excluding South Africa or North-African countries such as Egypt, rely heavily on the COVAX facility as they cannot afford deals with the Big Pharma,” says the director of the Vaccines for Africa Initiative (VACFA) Professor Gregory Hussey.

“Starting from here, I don’t know why the South African government had given the order to buy Aspen Pharmacare’s vaccines, especially when hundreds of millions of free doses are now widely available. That’s simple fiction,” he says.

Hussey hints that Aspen’s lack of orders could be down to the Durban-based company's business model and commercial strategy.

“Aspen’s vaccines are certainly less costly than Pfizer and Moderna. There are unanswered questions on what the structural organisation has been concerning Aspen. For instance, we aren’t sure if they have been marketing vaccines in Africa,” Hussey says.

In an opinion piece written last August, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown denounced what he called “the shocking symbol” of global vaccine inequity.

The New York Times, in reviewing South Africa export records from last year, discovered that Europe has received millions of J&J shots that went through end-stage production in South Africa by Aspen Pharmacare.

According to the American newspaper, the contract signed between Aspen Pharmacare and J&J required South Africa to waive its right to impose export restrictions on vaccine doses.

The controversy came when only 7% of South Africa’s population was fully vaccinated.

Last year Africa's largest drug-maker destroyed 30 million Johnson&Johnson vaccines at its Port Elizabeth plant that were compromised due to a contaminated drug substance supplied by J&J’s US partner Emergent Biosolutions, Aspen said.