‘The allocation of vaccine production will be in Aspen’s hands and, by so doing we are providing much greater security of supply for the Covid vaccine for Africa’: Gus Attridge – deputy chief executive, Aspen Group.
FIFI PETERS: Shares of Aspen received a lot of attention in the market today. At midday when I checked the stock was up nearly 7% and that was before the company announced a new deal with Johnson & Johnson that will give it the right to manufacture and sell Aspen’s own brand of Covid-19 vaccines to Africa. The vaccine will be known as Aspenovax.
We do have Aspen deputy chief executive officer Gus Attridge joining the Market Update for some clarity. Gus, thanks so much for your time. Did someone have the scoop on this deal before it was announced to the market?
GUS ATTRIDGE: No, Fifi. We put out a cautionary announcement at close of business last evening saying that we were making advances in discussions regarding a Covid-19 vaccine licence. So I think there was a lot of anticipation and advance based on that cautionary. We put it out at close last evening to make sure that everyone had an opportunity to be aware of what we were cautioning before the market opened this morning.
FIFI PETERS: Oh, right. Well, they certainly didn’t have to wait too long for you to actually act on the update. So let’s just talk about this new deal with Johnson & Johnson. Can you explain the significance of it to us and what it allows you to do that the previous agreement with Johnson & Johnson didn’t?
GUS ATTRIDGE: Sure, Fifi. It’s effectively a further building block beyond our existing fill-and-finish arrangements, because Aspen will have the right to decide where the vaccine actually goes. So the allocation of vaccine production will be in Aspen’s hands and, by so doing we are providing much greater security of supply for the Covid vaccine for Africa.
The territory for our arrangement with Johnson & Johnson is the continent of Africa, and we will be dedicated to manufacturing Aspenovax for the African continent. It will be a Covid-19 vaccine manufactured in Africa for Africa. I think there’s enormous significance in the security of supply but, beyond that as well, I believe it sets a blueprint which hopefully will be a motivation for others on the continent to pursue the opportunity to actually find solutions to some of our healthcare problems on the continent. I think we’ve proven there is a way.
FIFI PETERS: Aspenovax – is it essentially a generic of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?
GUS ATTRIDGE: It’s not a generic. It is the same vaccine with a different label on it.
FIFI PETERS: What does that mean for pricing of the vaccine? How will it compare to that of Johnson & Johnson?
GUS ATTRIDGE: We will have to negotiate our pricing with the major multilaterals that procured the vaccine, and Aspen will be seeking to price it at a reasonable and sustainable price that benefits access to vaccines. But that’s steps down the track, Fifi. Certainly we expect our price to be very fair and reasonable.
FIFI PETERS: I wanted to say that that’s also added to the difficulty of getting enough security of supply of vaccines for the continent – the issue around price. I’m just wondering that, given that the Aspenovax will be manufactured on the continent, you kind of eliminate some additional costs that would be in the value chain if you were importing it.
By virtue of it being produced locally, can one assume that it will be cheaper than the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the continent?
GUS ATTRIDGE: Fifi, that really does depend upon Johnson & Johnson’s pricing strategies going forward. What we have in our hands as Aspen is a capacity to price this product ourselves, and we will be looking to ensure that our price puts us in a position where we’re going to command the demand that we would like to be manufacturing more volumes of product at our manufacturing site in Gqeberha. We are creating the opportunity for more efficient manufacturing and, as a consequence, we will be seeking to drive volumes through that manufacturing site. So we’ll price accordingly.
FIFI PETERS: Then what does this mean for this deal? What does it possibly mean for new vaccines that may be manufactured as a result of new variants forming? I understand that Big Pharma is looking at the possibility of a new vaccine with concerns that the vaccines on the table presently may not be effective in fighting the new Omicron variant. So what does your deal mean for the manufacturing of new vaccines that may be forthcoming?
GUS ATTRIDGE: As far as our deal with Johnson & Johnson is concerned, the arrangements we have are a good-faith undertaking with them that for any new developments in this space we will discuss a means and see if we can get to a mutually beneficial situation that makes sense for both parties. That includes boosters and variants.
So the door’s open but it’s very difficult to have a firm arrangement about something which is uncertain. We don’t know at this stage how the new Omicron variant actually does respond to existing vaccines. That work is ongoing at the moment and obviously those results.
FIFI PETERS: Finally Gus, how long does this agreement with Johnson & Johnson last?
GUS ATTRIDGE: It lasts until December 2026 at least. In advance of that stage there are provisions for us to engage in discussions about potential extension.
FIFI PETERS: All right. We’ll leave it there. Thanks so much for your time. Gus Attridge is the deputy chief executive at Aspen Group, who has been talking about the new deal with Johnson & Johnson to manufacture and distribute the Aspenovax.