Aspen ready to roll out 225 million J&J vaccines a year

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Aspen is in discussion with J&J to get a licence to produce vaccines.
Aspen is in discussion with J&J to get a licence to produce vaccines.
Getty Images/Matthias Bein
  • Pharmaceutical group Aspen could produce up to 225 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine per year at its factory in Gqeberha.
  • If it gets a licence from J&J, it could also produce its own branded vaccines.
  • These would only be for the African market and not beyond.

Pharmaceutical group Aspen could see as many as 225 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine produced at its Gqeberha factory between July this year and June next year, deputy group chief executive Gus Attridge said on Thursday.

The first of the vaccine sales - valued at around R400 million - started in the past few months.

Currently, Aspen's factory in Gqeberha only handles the final stage of the vaccination, or the so-called "fill-finish process", Bloomberg reported. It imports the vaccine, frozen, from Johnson & Johnson. The vaccine is then thawed and placed into vials, which are then sealed.

"Our capacity has been made available to J&J and we have undertaken to produce up to 225 million doses per year. I think we will be reasonably busy, and it is conceivable that we could produce this amount between July this year and June next year," says Attridge.

Currently Aspen fills and finishes the vaccine product and then gets paid a fee by J&J for doing so. J&J then collects the product at the factory and sells it on to its own customers.

Aspen is in talks with J&J to get a license to produce the vaccines. If it succeeds, it will produce the drug substance itself - which is like a concentrate in the production of the vaccines - in South Africa.

Attridge says the discussions about the licence are not in any "binding form" at this stage.

"What the licence would open up is to provide an opportunity for Aspen to have its own brand of vaccine. We would be able to not only buy the drug substance from J&J in basic form, but would be able to determine ourselves whom to sell it to. Then we can get our own supply going," says Attridge.

"We foresee that whatever vaccines we produce in that way would be only for the African market. Whatever licence we get from J&J would be to sell our own branded product only within Africa and not beyond."

Asked whether Aspen would also consider manufacturing vaccines in SA for other companies, Attridge said this was a possibility if it were required and if the right terms could be agreed on.    

"We certainly have the ability and presently have the capacity. There is lots of demand for our vaccine production capacity and we are trying to get the correct balance between the supply of Covid-19 vaccines and making sure we are also paying attention to our other undertakings outside the vaccine space," he said.

"From a humanitarian point of view we all hope the Covid-19 pandemic will end. That will reduce the demand for vaccines. That is why we just need to keep a balance in our business to make sure we are not only focused on the vaccine business. We have lots of capacity for future investment."

On Wednesday Aspen reported a 21% increase in its headline profit. It regards the production of Covid-19 vaccines at its Gqeberha site as "the standout achievement" over the past financial year.

Group revenue lifted by 12% to R37.8 billion in the year to end-June, aided by a 36% increase in manufacturing revenue, which it attributed in part to the vaccine contract. 

The company's debt burden shrank from R35 billion to R16.3 billion in the past year, thanks to the sale of its European thrombosis business, as well as thanks to strong operating cash flows.

Aspen declared a dividend of 262c per share for the past year, after not having declared a dividend in the previous year.

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