2 million SA vaccines had to be destroyed - but US bosses get bonuses despite problems at factory

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Emergent BioSolutions disposed of 15 million doses of J&J vaccine in March. Photo by Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images
Emergent BioSolutions disposed of 15 million doses of J&J vaccine in March. Photo by Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images
Photo by Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images
  • The US biotech firm Emergent enjoyed its best financial year in 20 years, and five executives received R115 million in bonuses, The New York Times reported.
  • This is despite massive problems at the company's plant, which meant that 75 million J&J vaccines can't be used.
  • Two million vaccines for South Africans also had to be destroyed as a result.

The New York Times reported this week that five executives of biotech firm Emergent received nearly R115 million ($8 million) in cash and stock awards in recent weeks – despite the fact that 75 million Johnson & Johnson vaccines can't be used due to problems at the company’s Baltimore plant.

Two million desperately-needed vaccines meant for South Africans – manufactured at Aspen’s Gqeberha plant using ingredients from the Emergent plant - also had to be destroyed as a result.

Since April, the distribution of locally made J&J vaccines was put on hold due to the problems in Baltimore – a crippling blow to South Africa’s vaccine campaign in the run-up to a third Covid-19 wave, which has now gripped the country.

"You just wonder how many lives you may have been able to save if you could [have] distributed the product at the end of April," Aspen CEO Stephen Saad said in interview with The Money Show with Bruce Whitfield on Tuesday. He added that he was "disappointed that [the problems at the US factory] happened at all", and expressed concern about the knock-on effect on South Africa, as the Covid-19 caseload surges in the country.

Workers at Emergent BioSolutions in Baltimore accidentally mixed up some of the ingredients, and an investigation by US authorities also revealed that the factory did not seal off a preparation area for vaccine ingredients, with waste materials moving through the area.

The New York Times previously reported that audits and investigations into the Baltimore factory flagged a persistent problem "with mould in areas required to be kept clean, poor disinfection of some plant equipment leading to growth of bacteria, the repeated approval of raw materials that had not been fully tested, and inadequate training of some employees".

Last year, Emergent received a $628 million contract from the Trump administration - with no competitive bidding – to bottle and package vaccines, The New York Times reported this week.

This helped the "the politically connected company" to enjoy its best financial year in two decades, even though its Baltimore factory "had failed to deliver a single usable vaccine dose" until last week. In addition, the production lines at its two other sites have mostly sat idle, the newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, Aspen has switched to using vaccine ingredients from Europe a month ago, and Saad says that by Monday next week, "a fresh batch" of vaccines will be released from its South African facility, which can produce 300 million doses a year.

Saad says that Aspen has "plenty of material" that will help it to produce millions of doses in the next few months.

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