Aspen Pharmacare, pursuing J&J vaccine license, aims to shore up local capacity and quash shot inequality in Africa

History is repeating for Aspen Pharmacare. Nearly 20 years ago, as Africa grappled with an HIV epidemic, Aspen pioneered the first generic antiretroviral on the continent. Now, it has a chance to do something similar with Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine.

This time, however, the South African drugmaker's contribution could be even more of a "game changer," thanks to the scope of the pandemic and the disproportionate toll it's taken on Africa, an Aspen executive told Fierce Pharma.

Aspen earlier this week signed a nonbinding term sheet with two J&J subsidiaries in a bid to license and sell the company's single-dose COVID-19 vaccine in Africa. The potentially "monumental" agreement is big for two reasons, Stavros Nicolaou, Ph.D., group senior executive of strategic trade at Aspen Pharma Group, said in an interview.

The deal, which would allow Aspen to price, distribute and sell the shot in Africa under the moniker Aspenovax, could help bridge the vaccine inequality divide that's plagued the continent throughout the pandemic, Nicolaou said. Some 12 months since the first COVID-19 vaccines were administered, Africa has received just 3% of the world's vaccine supplies, he pointed out.

An Aspen-branded shot "de facto provides Africa with its first COVID vaccine," he explained.  

Secondly, the pact would go a long way toward building local vaccine manufacturing capacity on the continent.

"What this pandemic has clearly demonstrated is local capacity solves local problems," Nicolaou said. "Africa had no local capacity up until now" to meet its pandemic vaccine requirements, he added. For context, Africa imports around 99% of its required vaccines, Nicolaou said.

That's "counterintuitive" considering the continent's disproportionate disease burden and under-invested vaccine programs, he added.

RELATED: Johnson & Johnson goes local to help Black, Hispanic patients left behind by health inequality

Africa's vaccination target mirrors those in other parts of the world. The continent wants to vaccinate at least 70% of its adult population, which works out to around 800 million people, Nicolaou said.

Aspen has capacity to make 300 million COVID-19 vaccine doses per year. The company aims to expand to 450 million doses by the end of 2022's first quarter. In the two years after that, the company wants to work up to more than 700 million doses per year, "with a horizon to get to 1.3 billion eventually," Nicolaou said.

As for the shot's name, Aspen wanted to convey the fact that Aspenovax will be "an African vaccine for Africans." Aspen, which is the largest pharma company on the continent, is a "tried, tested and well-recognized brand," Nicolaou said. The name also feeds into Aspen's broader ambitions to play in Africa's vaccines space, he said.

Aspen, founded in 1997, has "lived through various iterations of either pandemics or regional epidemics" such as HIV and multidrug-resistant TB, Nicolaou pointed out.

"This is kind of a historical repeat in a sense, but a lot more impactful because of the depth, breadth and scope of what you're dealing with here," he said of the company's COVID-19 response in Africa.

RELATED: Moderna to pour $500M into Africa to meet future mRNA vaccine manufacturing demand

Aspen already has a deal to package J&J's shot at its facility in South Africa. Under the terms of the potential licensing pact, Aspen would be in charge of finishing vaccine doses as well as marketing the shot on the continent.

Aspen has said it will 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.