By Promit Mukherjee
GQEBERHA, South Africa -South Africa's Aspen Pharmacare is aiming to ramp up its COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing capacity to 1.3 billion doses a year by February 2024, up from a current annual output of around 250 million doses, the company's CEO told Reuters on Monday.
Aspen is doing the final stages of manufacturing for Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine under a so-called "fill and finish" deal, but CEO Stephen Saad said in an interview that the companies were close to announcing a broader deal for Aspen to produce J&J's COVID-19 shot under licence.
"We have got an absolute commitment to 700 million doses till February 2023 ... within a year after that, we could get (to) 1.3 billion doses," Saad said on the sidelines of the opening of Aspen's anaesthetic manufacturing facility at Gqeberha in eastern South Africa.
The company is currently delivering 250 million doses of the final packaged versions of J&J's COVID-19 vaccine on an annualised basis and would reach a capacity of 300 million doses per year by November or December, Saad said.
Under its contract with J&J it has to supply 31 million doses to South Africa. It will also supply up to 400 million to the rest of Africa via an agreement with the African Union.
However, its supplies had been delayed due to a host of problems related to export of the drug substance to manufacture the vaccine and a raft of approvals in the United States and South Africa. It began supplies to South Africa at the end of July.
Saad had said last month that the company was in talks with J&J for a licensing arrangement which would give it the right to not only price the vaccine, but brand it and decide where it is sold.
"We have to get through a lot of technical details. But all (is) progressing well and we expect to respond shortly. It's not going to be months and months away."
The South African government had been criticised earlier by bodies including the World Health Organisation for manufacturing vaccines in Africa but allowing them to be exported to Europe, even as the continent lags on vaccination.
Saad hinted the expansion of capacity and the licensing talks with J&J were to meet African demand.
"1.3 billion people live in the African continent so we wanted to say 'One Africa, one vaccine' and we want to have that capability," Saad said.
Minister of Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel, who inaugurated the anaesthetic facility, said 100% of the vaccines produced at Aspen's facility would go to Africa from September.