Aspen COVID-19 vaccine lines risk going idle as J&J orders dwindle

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South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare’s COVID-19 vaccine production lines may soon go idle, and without any new orders, it could be forced to pivot to manufacturing other products, according to a senior executive.

Aspen currently produces vaccines for Johnson & Johnson and, in March, it struck a deal to produce, price, and sell its own-brand version of the shot for African markets.

That deal was considered a game-changer for a continent frustrated by sluggish Western hand-outs. But, while only a 5th of adults in Africa are fully vaccinated, according to the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, demands for shots have failed to materialise.

Aspen has had no orders for its Aspenovax vaccine, and it is not possible to predict future J&J demand says Aspen Group Senior Executive, Stavros Nicolaou says it leaves the future of its 450-million-dose annual production capacity in doubt.

“The thing here is that we don’t know if we will get further orders from J&J. But we are producing what we currently have on order,” he says.

Secure orders

“Intense” talks are under way with J&J as well as with bilateral organisations to secure orders soon, Nicolaou added. Without them, he said Aspen may decide to pivot to manufacturing anaesthetics or other sterile products.

J&J told Reuters that its requirements for Aspen-produced vaccine doses were dependent upon global demand.

“This year, final quantities and delivery schedules for our vaccine are geared to the evolving needs of countries, depending on their vaccination needs and their capacity to absorb vaccines at different points in time,” the company said.

Nicolaou cautioned that more critical than J&J’s supply requirements was the need to jumpstart orders for Aspen’s own Aspenovax.

700 million dose boost

The bulk of the company’s COVID-19 production lines had been meant to produce Aspenovax for Africa. Its initial plans aimed to boost annual capacity to 700 million doses by February and a further expansion to one billion doses to meet expected demand.

However, its existing Aspenovax production lines are currently sitting idle.

“Of course we cannot continue with vacant lines indefinitely. And we would have to get orders soon or pivot.” says Nicolaou.