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HEALTHCARE BOOST

Aspen’s Covid vaccine facility in Gqeberha switches to making insulin for Africa

Aspen’s Covid vaccine facility in Gqeberha switches to making insulin for Africa
The sterile facility at Aspen in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape. (Photo: Reino van Eck)

Aspen South Africa will soon deliver millions of vials of human insulin to patients in Africa at a low cost after reaching an agreement with Novo Nordisk.

The facility that was previously used to make Covid-19 vaccines at Aspen’s plant in Gqeberha will be converted for the production of insulin. This was announced on Tuesday by Aspen Holdings Limited and its wholly owned South African subsidiary, Aspen SA Operations.

The company has concluded an agreement with the leading global manufacturer of human insulin, Novo Nordisk, for the technical transfer and commercial manufacture of the life-saving drug. 

Aspen invested R6-billion in building the Gqeberha facilities and related technologies. The production of insulin will use sterile infrastructure including some used for Covid vaccine production. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa’s Aspen gets $30 mln grant to make vaccines

The new contract will ensure the jobs of 250 people. It will start in 2024 and reduce the transport-related carbon footprint by 68%.

“Aspen has a clear objective and focus to capacitate Africa and give quality, affordable access to critical medicines from sites based in Africa that are also capable of exporting to global markets. 

“We are proud to be associated and working with Novo Nordisk, a global leader in many areas including diabetic insulins,” said Aspen Group chief executive Stephen Saad.

“We hope to build off this initial foundation with Novo Nordisk to further expand access. In addition, this development is important for retaining critical skills, developing new talent on the continent and diversifying global supply chains to ensure security of supply and improved patient access. 

“To this end, the technical and skills transfer agreement is key and an endorsement of Africa’s role in the regional and global pharmaceutical supply chain.”

In a statement issued by Novo Nordisk, the company indicated that it was currently reaching 500,000 people with diabetes across sub-Saharan Africa and would more than double this through its partnership with Aspen. (Read the WHO’s factsheet on diabetes here.)

The company said Africa imported more than 80% of its medicines.

aspen insulin

Aspen will start its process of manufacturing human insulin at its Gqeberha, Eastern Cape, sterile facility in 2024. (Photo: Shauneen Beukes)

“The new partnership will enable the production of human insulin for the African continent. Next year, there will be a production of 16 million vials, equivalent to the yearly consumption of 1.1 million people. By 2026, this number will increase to 4.1 million people living with type 1 and type 2 diabetes across the African continent,” the Novo Nordisk statement reads.

“We firmly believe that access to quality healthcare is a fundamental human right,” said Katrine DiBona, corporate vice president for global public affairs and sustainability at Novo Nordisk. 

“We are committed to providing affordable human insulin to ensure access to quality treatments for even more people with diabetes on the African continent. At the same time, it is equally important for us that we are doing it in a sustainable way by focusing on local production.”

The statement added that the focus will be on supplying affordable insulin.

According to Novo Nordisk, the human insulin will be distributed at low cost to health authorities and non-government organisations through government tenders as part of Novo Nordisk’s sustainable business integrated model, iCARE. 

With iCARE, Novo Nordisk says it will guarantee a price of no more than $3 per vial. 

Aspen Group chief operating officer, Lorraine Hill, said by converting the Covid vaccine sterile facility for vials of human insulin, the company had saved jobs in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro.

She said the Aspen plant in Gqeberha was already off the grid with respect to water and would be off the grid electricity-wise soon, as they were constructing their own power supply.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Aspen shares spike on prescription of moves to go off-grid and new manufacturing business

“This agreement demonstrates our confidence in Africa. It is a positive indicator for employment as well,” said Hill.

She said she felt strongly that non-communicable diseases, like diabetes, needed to be focused on post-Covid.

She said by repurposing their sterile facility they were able to retain critical skills.

She said while it was vitally important to have a strong local government in place, they had no intention of leaving Nelson Mandela Bay in spite of recent instability.

“We are building an even bigger plant in Gqeberha. We are only expanding.” DM

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