Brian Sokutu
Senior Print Journalist
3 minute read
3 May 2022
10:34 pm

Aspen to stop local vaccine production in Gqeberha as orders dry up

Brian Sokutu

Stavros Nicolaou, Aspen Pharmacare Holdings’ group senior executive for strategic trade development, told The Citizen the decision was business-driven.

Picture for illustration: Gallo Images

With unsustainability and the drying up of orders being at the core of Aspen Pharmacare’s Covid vaccine production line in Gqeberha closing down, the department of health on Tuesday said it would persuade the giant drugs manufacturer to reconsider its decision, due to concerns over the anticipated fifth wave of the virus to hit South Africa.

Stavros Nicolaou, Aspen Pharmacare Holdings’ group senior executive for strategic trade development, told The Citizen the decision was business-driven, while national health spokesperson Foster Mohale said government would continue to engage Aspen “to reconsider the decision” so close to the fifth wave.

“Although we understand the impact on business, the closure of the Covid vaccine production line will not only affect South Africa and the African continent, but other parts of the world.

“The sustainability of Covid vaccines is linked to a number of factors, which include procurement, uptake, supply and demand,” said Mohale.

Nicolaou said the production line has been “repurposed to be used for other production, unless we get orders for Covid vaccines soon”.

“If we do not get any Covid vaccine orders, then clearly there will be no rationale for retaining the lines to make this production,” said Nicolaou.

“We knew that the Covid vaccine may not be sustainable. However, we were assured that the regional manufacturing platform was [of] critical [importance] and would be supported,” he said.

“We had banked on these initial volumes to give us the time to enable us to pivot to other vaccines.

“The reality is that if Aspen cannot maintain production, what hope is there for others and why would anyone further invest in the continent,” Nicolau said.

Launched with fanfare last year by President Cyril Ramaphosa, the Covid vaccine manufacturing facility was geared to supply the whole of Africa – currently under-vaccinated.

“While there might be an oversupply of vaccines at the moment, if Africa loses Covid vaccine production, we will once again become dependent as a country and a continent on Indian production, with the continent finding its way at the back-end of the queue yet again, when it experiences a next waveor a new pandemic,” said Nicolau.

“It would also mean that we would have to repurpose these production lines and then the Covid vaccine capacity would be lost to the continent.”

With some vaccine stock having expired, Professor Shabir Madhi, executive director of the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics research unit at Wits University, said government has “not really ordered much vaccines from Aspen”.

“Developing a facility only to produce Covid vaccines is unsustainable and bound to fail,” Mahdi said.

“All the fanfare about developing local manufacturing capacity appears to be oblivious to the issue of sustainability of producing vaccines at cost, with Indian manufacturers producing a range of vaccines,” said Madhi.

He said the Covid vaccine campaign in SA was “stuttering on” as a process.

“With more than 85% of population having developed immunity from the infection, the main priority is to get 90% of high-risk people – those older than 50 years – vaccinated with at least three doses.”