'Relieved' Aspen CEO laments impact of US vaccine factory problems on SA

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Aspen CEO Stephen Saad.
Aspen CEO Stephen Saad.
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  • Aspen CEO Stephen Saad says South Africa can expect two million Johnson & Johnson doses soon - to replace those that must be destroyed following contamination problems at a US factory.
  • But he lamented that problems at that factory may have resulted in avoidable deaths from Covid-19 in South Africa, if not detected.
  • Saad is also concerned about Aspen's commitment to the rest of the continent.

As a third Covid-19 wave threatens to engulf South Africa, Aspen CEO Stephen Saad lamented that problems at a US factory may have resulted in avoidable deaths, if not detected.

South Africa should be able to replace two million contaminated doses of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccines, which must now be destroyed, within the next few weeks.

On Friday, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave instruction that 75 million doses of the J&J vaccine be discarded following reports that workers at Emergent BioSolutions in Baltimore accidentally mixed up some of the ingredients. An investigation by the US authorities revealed that the factory did not seal off a preparation area for vaccine ingredients, and waste materials were also moved through the area.

Substances that came from the affected US plant were shipped to Aspen’s Gqeberha plant and used in manufacturing local vaccines.

Some two million of these vaccines have been ready since the end of April, but local authorities were awaiting the FDA's ruling before releasing it to South Africans. Following the US authority’s advice, the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) said the batch can’t be used in South Africa.

Saad said during an interview with The Money Show with Bruce Whitfield on Tuesday 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.

"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 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.

An additional 300 000 J&J vaccines will arrive from overseas this week, which will be used for teachers, Saad said.

As a country, South Africa should receive two million doses over the next few weeks, from local production as well as increased imports from J&J. 

Saad said that he is now "a lot more relieved as a South African than I was at the end of Friday [following the FDA ruling] -  that was quite a shock".

But while South Africa should received sufficient vaccines in coming months, Saad expressed concern about Aspen's commitments to deliver vaccines to the rest of the continent.   

"The disappointing part is that we don’t see ourselves as looking after SA only. We are very committed to Africa – it is very important to get stock to Africa," he said in the radio interview.

Last month, the International Monetary Fund said that the continent is reliant on the Aspen facility, and should be closely monitored.

The African Union wants procure 220 million single shot vaccines from J&J.

"Most of this supply is expected to be produced by Aspen Pharma in South Africa. This deal alone provides a vaccine coverage of 18% to 32% to African Union member countries," the IMF said.   

"Further, given the reliance on the South Africa manufacturing facility, proactively monitoring and mitigating supply chain risks in the plant will be important." 

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