While Aspen took special care in its announcement on Tuesday to say that it had reached a “non-binding” agreement with two subsidiaries of Johnson & Johnson to start negotiations for a definitive agreement to manufacture and sell Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines in Africa, a final agreement looks sure to follow.
A few of the important prerequisites are already in place. Aspen is willing to put up the cash for the manufacturing, it was agreed that the vaccine will be distributed under the Aspen brand and, very importantly, it got the buy-in from important role-players.
Dr Adrian Thomas, vice president of strategy and external affairs at Johnson & Johnson, noted during a discussion of the proposed venture that it is bound to address the low rate of vaccination on the African continent, which he said is significantly lower than that of the rest of the world.
Agreement will cover future variants
“Johnson & Johnson is fully committed to assist in increasing vaccinations. This is an important milestone to manufacture vaccines in Africa for Africa,” said Thomas, adding that the agreement will cover future variants.
“Only by working together and sharing skills will be able to be successful.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa, previous chair of the African Union and now recognised as a key proponent for vaccinations, apologised for not being able to attend the event and sent a message of support: “The effectiveness of our response as the African continent to the Covid-19 pandemic has been severely hampered by the grossly unequal distribution of vaccines across the world.
“Today’s landmark announcement between Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare and Johnson & Johnson is the culmination of months of hard work with, among others, the African Union, Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust, in developing production capacity on the continent. This announcement will make an important contribution to addressing vaccine inequality and building Africa’s capacity to meet its own vaccine needs now and into the future.”
Aspen announced that the agreement would expand the existing technical transfer and manufacturing agreements between Aspen and Johnson & Johnson to grant Aspen the rights to:
- Manufacture finished Sars-CoV-2 Covid-19 vaccine product from drug substance supplied by Johnson & Johnson; and
- Sell the finished form vaccine, to be launched and branded as Aspenovax, to public sector markets in Africa through transactions with designated multilateral organisations and with national governments of member states of the African Union.
In addition, Johnson & Johnson will grant Aspen a licence to the enabling intellectual property for this purpose.
The term of the grant of rights and supply of drug substance, subject to the signing of the definitive agreement, would be until December 31, 2026. The non-binding term sheet contemplates a good faith undertaking between the parties to discuss the expansion of the agreement to include any new versions of the drug substance, such as those developed for new variants or as a different formulation for administration as a booster, and the applicable terms thereof, according to the announcement.
Aspen CEO Stephen Saad reiterated the skewed access to vaccines around the world. “The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the inequitable access to vaccines globally. This is evident no more so than in Africa which has historically had no option but to import 99% of its vaccine requirements.
“Those regions with manufacturing capacity and capabilities have enjoyed ready access to vaccines, those without have not. Africa remains vaccine-constrained, preventing an effective response to the need to protect Africans against the virus.
“We are most grateful to Johnson & Johnson for their confidence in collaborating with Aspen to address these challenges,” said Saad.
“Through our contract manufacturing partnership with Johnson & Johnson, Aspen has been able to manufacture over 100 million doses of the Janssen Covid vaccine to date, almost all of which have been supplied to Africa.”
He said the company was pleased to announce the intention for Johnson & Johnson to grant Aspen the rights to manufacture and sell Aspen’s own brand of the vaccine in Africa.
“These rights and the accompanying access to intellectual property has provided us with the catalyst to further increase our vaccine manufacturing capacities in South Africa,” said Saad, adding that the manufacturing capacity will be utilised exclusively for supply to African customers.
The discussion of the agreement involved leading voices in the fight against the pandemic, with Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organisation (WHO) regional director for Africa, voicing support for the idea.
“It will make a significant contribution to the availability of vaccines,” she said.
“There is an urgent need to accelerate the uptake of vaccines in Africa.”
Listen to Fifi Peters’s interview with Aspen deputy CEO Gus Attridge (or read the transcript here):