Aspen closes in on Africa license for Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine

vaccines
If the deal works out, Aspen would launch J&J's vaccine in Africa under the brand name Aspenovax. (Moonhonor/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

One of Johnson & Johnson’s long-held pandemic manufacturing partners just made headway in its quest to license the company’s shot in Africa.

Aspen Pharmacare on Tuesday inked a non-binding term sheet with two of J&J’s Janssen subsidiaries, the company said in an emailed statement. If the agreement yields a definitive deal, Aspen will become the first company to snag African rights to distribution, pricing and branding of the vaccine, Reuters reports.

Aspen already packages J&J’s vaccine at its factory in South Africa. The new deal would expand Aspen’s responsibilities to include both production of finished vaccine doses from J&J-supplied drug substance, plus the right to sell the finished shot in Africa.

Should the deal pan out, Aspen plans to launch the vaccine under the moniker Aspenovax, the company said. Aspen would supply the shot to public sector markets on the continent through deals with designated multilateral organizations and with the governments of African Union member states. The terms of the potential J&J licensing pact would be good through December 31, 2026, the company added.

Down the road, the license could include new versions of drug substance, such as those developed as boosters or variant-specific shots, Aspen said. 

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Letting an African company distribute and market the vaccine locally could go a long way toward vaccinating people on the continent, which is the least vaccinated part of the world, Reuters notes.

Africa has been at the heart of discussions about vaccine equity, sometimes with J&J and Aspen in tow.

The New York Times in August reported that most of the J&J shots bottled and packaged at Aspen were going to Europe, not Africa. The European Commission at the time maintained that the exports from Aspen’s factory were only temporary, Reuters reported.

After controversy ensued, The Wall Street Journal reported that J&J doses made at Aspen’s South African facility would be shipped to African countries, citing comments from the African Union’s Strive Masiyiwa. Millions of doses that had been sent to Europe and stored in warehouses were slated for return to the continent, The Journal reported.

“Africa remains vaccine constrained, preventing an effective response to the need to protect Africans against the virus,” Stephen Saad, Aspen Group chief executive, said in a statement. “We are most grateful to Johnson & Johnson for their confidence in collaborating with Aspen to address these challenges,” he added.

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Under its existing deal, Aspen has so far manufactured more than 100 million doses of J&J’s vaccine, “almost all of which have been supplied to Africa,” Saad pointed out.

Aspen has the capacity to manufacture up to 300 million doses of J&J's shot, with plans to crank that number up to more than 700 million doses by January 2023, Bloomberg notes. 

Meanwhile, J&J isn’t the only COVID-19 player looking to expand its African footprint. Moderna in October was reported to be eyeing sites on the continent to erect a $500 million mRNA manufacturing facility. The facility is expected to be able to manufacture up to 500 million doses of injectables and will likely include drug substance manufacturing capability, plus the flexibility to add fill-finish and packaging.