South Africa

Aspen expands its vaccine reach in Africa with Serum deal

Aspen Pharmacare Holdings agreed with Serum Institute of India to make and distribute four Aspen-branded vaccines in Africa, where the Covid-19 pandemic exposed a chronic lack of shot-making capacity.

The 10-year deal covers a quartet of routine doses – pneumococcal, rotavirus, polyvalent meningococcal and hexavalent – the Durban-based company said in a statement Wednesday. The bulk of these are currently imported.

The move follows Aspen’s efforts to secure a fill-and-package agreement with Johnson & Johnson to make its Covid-19 vaccine during the height of the coronavirus health crisis, after Africa was all but shut out from the global inoculation drive.

While that deal was later expanded to include an Aspen own-branded dose, the company struggled to secure orders as the continent and much of the world adjusted to a post-pandemic era. The group makes the shots at a plant in Gqeberha, South Africa, where it would also manufacture the Serum doses.

“This is a very important step for African vaccines manufacturing,” Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, deputy director at the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a separate statement. “It has responded to African Union heads of state and governments’ call that 30% of the continent’s human vaccine requirements be procured from African manufacturers.”

Aspen Pharmacare’s shares climbed 5.9%, paring the decline this year to 34%. The company also reported a 35% gain in full-year net income to R6.49 billion and a 24% increase in its dividend.

“To get someone like Serum, who is a very big vaccine manufacturer themselves, to want to partner with us, shows they see that there is going to be a real swing in the way people purchase” shots, CEO Stephen Saad said in an interview. “It gives us more certainty on our volumes.”

Still, the additional manufacturing won’t be at the exclusion of its ability to make its Aspenovax Covid-19 vaccine, nor will it hinder the addition of its anaesthetics line, he said.

The drug maker has previously considered expanding into making drug substances for vaccines, such as shots for children or potential candidates for HIV inoculations. The group earlier switched focus from making generic medicines to producing so-called sterile including anaesthetics to tap a higher-value market.

It said that Aspen expects to get grant funding from both the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to support regional manufacturing capacity “for an affordable supply of vaccines” in Africa.

While the company is also speaking to other parties about making the monkeypox vaccine, Saad said these talks aren’t at a point where there is likely to be any announcement soon.