Covid-19

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International financiers pump R10bn into SA’s Aspen Pharmacare to boost Covid-19 vaccine production

President Cyril Ramaphosa and Deputy President David Mabuza lead an oversight visit to Aspen Pharmacare's sterile manufacturing facility in Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape. (Photo: BABA JIYANE / GCIS)

The World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation, said this was the largest healthcare investment it had mobilised to date.

The World Bank, France, Germany and the US are pumping €600-million – about R10-billion – into the South African pharmaceutical company Aspen Pharmacare to boost its production of Covid-19 vaccines for Africa.

The injection will bolster Aspen’s finances so it can continue to produce vaccines under licence for the US pharmaceutical corporation Johnson & Johnson at its sterile plant in Gqeberha. Aspen is compounding, finishing, filling and packaging J&J’s Janssen vaccines and supplying them to South Africa and the rest of Africa.

The World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), is mobilising the deal and contributing €200-million. The French development institution Proparco is providing €156-million; Germany’s development institution DEG, €144-million; and the US Development Finance Corporation (DFC) the remaining €100-million.

The IFC said this was the largest healthcare investment it had mobilised to date, in the statement announcing the package. The four development financing institutions said they were answering the call from African governments to bolster the continent’s vaccine supply chain to counter Covid-19 and strengthen their health sectors in the longer term.

Africa is facing an acute Covid-19 vaccine shortage as it suffers a third wave of the pandemic, fuelled in large part by the more infectious Delta variant of the disease. 

“The financing will help Aspen, Africa’s largest pharmaceutical company, to refinance existing debt and strengthen the company’s balance sheet, supporting Aspen’s operations including production of vaccines, and other therapies in African and emerging markets,” the financiers said. 

They added that they also aimed to help increase vaccine manufacturing know-how and knowledge sharing within Africa by partnering with Aspen.

“Aspen is expanding its role in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa,” they said, noting the company had recently built a fully certified sterile injectables facility at its existing site at Gqeberha.

“With this new facility, Aspen was able to offer Johnson & Johnson filling, finishing and packaging capacity for its Covid-19 vaccine, with the first batches having already been manufactured.”

Stephen Saad, Aspen’s group chief executive, said the financing would help to extend and capacitate Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing at its Gqeberha production facility. 

“Aspen is seeking to play a meaningful role in contributing to the objective of delivering the majority of Africa’s needs from production sites located in Africa,” he added.

Makhtar Diop, the IFC’s managing director, said the pandemic had highlighted Africa’s reliance on global vaccine supply chains, which had left the continent vulnerable to disruptions and delays. Through financing Aspen the World Bank Group aimed to contribute to Africa’s vaccine manufacturing development and support knowledge sharing and technology exchanges.

“Together, we hope this will save lives now and help ensure that Africa is prepared ahead of any future health crises.”

Africa aims to manufacture 60% of its route immunisation needs by 2040 but currently makes only about 1% of the vaccines it uses. 

Rémy Rioux, president of Proparco, noted that French President Emmanuel Macron had committed to investing in the production of vaccines in Africa, “for local production will be key to win the battle against Covid-19”.

He added that he was proud that Proparco was contributing to the financing of Aspen, a “front-liner” manufacturer of Covid-19 drugs and vaccines, to help close a gap in the availability of the shots between African and Western nations. 

Monika Beck, a member of the DEG’s management board, said: “We are convinced that it is essential to join forces to fight the pandemic effectively, and the private sector plays a key role in this.” 

DFC Chief Operating Officer David Marchick said the package aligned with US President Joe Biden’s strategy to end the pandemic by boosting critical vaccine production efforts on the African continent.

“This project is the first of many that will help build local capacity and create self-reliance for regions around the world, and will help immediately address the current pandemic while also boosting future pandemic preparedness efforts.” DM

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