African leaders have called on the organisation in charge of procurement for the Covax vaccine sharing scheme to commit to buying at least 30 per cent of all Covid-19 jabs produced on the continent, as the future of Africa’s biggest manufacturing facility hangs in the balance.
Covid-19 vaccine production at the Aspen Pharmacare facility in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, ground to a halt in late March because of a drop-off in demand, putting its future in doubt and threatening to undermine African Union plans to increase local jab production.
Earlier in the pandemic, Africa struggled to obtain doses when supply was squeezed. But in recent months several vaccine makers have cut jab sales forecasts for 2022, citing an oversupply of shots and vaccine hesitancy in less vaccinated regions, such as Africa.
In a communique from an African Union meeting held last week, seen by the Financial Times, leaders of 16 African nations called for Gavi — a vaccine alliance which runs Covax alongside the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations — to “offtake at least 30 per cent of all vaccines produced by the continent for global consumption”.
The heads of state and government, all of whom have plans to build local vaccine manufacturing capacity, also called on organisations responsible for bulk buying jabs “to prioritise procuring vaccines meant for African countries from African producers”.
In the communique, leaders “expressed strong concern” that Gavi had been “slow to support” local vaccine manufacturing, “therefore hampering African-based manufacturing”.
The number of people jabbed in African countries continues to lag far behind wealthier nations. Health experts have warned low vaccine coverage makes new variants more likely.
Health officials hope the intervention by African leaders could help resolve the ongoing doubts over the future of the Aspen facility.
In November last year, Aspen signed a licensing agreement with Johnson & Johnson for the exclusive right to bottle and sell its single-shot vaccine across Africa under the brand name Aspenovax.
The move was widely hailed as a sign of progress for Africa’s fledgling vaccine industry. But no orders have been placed for Aspenovax and J&J has not asked Aspen to produce more doses of its vaccine. Aspen has made around 180mn doses for J&J to date.
Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told the FT that the move by the continent’s leaders “increased the likelihood” Aspen would receive new orders and not have to permanently shut its two Covid-19 vaccine production lines.
He said the 30 per cent target was “the minimum to make sure the market stays alive”. “We all recognise the need to have regional facilities, but you cannot have regional facilities if Gavi doesn’t take a hard look at its business model,” he added.
The leaders also pledged to set up new “procurement mechanisms” through Africa CDC and partner organisations “to ensure certainty of demand for African-manufactured vaccines and other relevant pharmaceutical products” by the end of the year. The communique was issued following a meeting held on May 10.
An Aspen executive said the communique was “encouraging”, and added that it “places an onus” on Covax and Gavi “to do something differently”. They added that Aspen was “ready” to begin producing doses of Aspenovax if orders were received.
A Gavi spokesperson said the group was still under contract with J&J and had “made it clear to them — now that local capacity is available — that our preference would be to receive remaining doses from Aspen”.
The spokesperson explained that as Aspenovax production is in the early stages, Gavi “can only make procurement decisions if we can be sure the vaccines will have demand so as not go to waste”.
“Given current demand . . . as well as ample available supply, we cannot be sure yet this will be the case,” the spokesperson added.