Novo Nordisk taps Aspen to help produce insulin for Africa

Novo Nordisk, following a similar move by its diabetes rival Eli Lilly, is teaming up with Aspen Pharmacare to shore up insulin supplies in Africa, which currently imports more than 80% of its medicine.

Novo has enlisted South Africa’s Aspen to make human insulin for the continent as part of an “expanded commitment” to reach more than 500,000 diabetes patients across sub-Saharan Africa, Novo said in a press release Tuesday.

Aspen will produce vials from its existing sterile facility in Gqeberha, South Africa, where it’s made about 6 billion South African rand (about $316 million) of investments in recent years, the company said in a separate release.

Aspen will utilize some of the sterile infrastructure it previously established to produce COVID-19 vaccines. The company was set to manufacture and sell Johnson & Johnson’s COVID shot last year, but a lack of demand left its production lines idle.

Under the Novo deal, Aspen aims to crank out 16 million vials of insulin in 2024, which is enough for 1.1 million people per year. By 2026, Novo hopes Aspen will be able to produce enough product to serve 4.1 million patients annually.

The Aspen-made insulin will be distributed at low cost to health authorities and nongovernmental organizations through government tenders, Novo explained. The Danish drugmaker is promising a price cap of $3 per insulin vial.

Aspen says it will deploy roughly 250 staffers for its insulin production push, which is slated to kick off at the beginning of 2024.

It’s estimated that more than 60 million people with diabetes worldwide won’t have access to insulin by 2030, according to Novo. People living in low- to middle-income countries will be especially hard hit, including some 24 million adults currently living with diabetes in Africa. That number is expected to increase to 55 million by 2045, Novo said.

As it stands, Africa currently imports more than 80% of its drugs, according to the World Health Organization.

Novo’s rival Eli Lilly charted similar moves last December, when the Indianapolis-based company struck a licensing agreement with generics maker Eva Pharma of Egypt.

Lilly itself tapped Aspen in late August, too. Details on the deal were slim, but the arrangement gives Aspen the rights to sell, promote and distribute Lilly’s pharmaceutical portfolio in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.

Meanwhile, Novo’s new supply contract is more good news for Aspen, whose facilities have been underutilized at times amid a downturn in COVID-19 vaccine demand.

Aspen first entered the global spotlight when it inked a deal to help make Johnson & Johnson’s COVID shot back in the fall of 2020. The company started training about 500 people to work on the COVID vaccine line at its Gqeberha steriles site, where production kicked off in early 2021.

But by May 2022, amid a global downturn in vaccine demand, Aspen reported it hadn’t received a single order for its branded version of the shot.

Last August, Aspen’s head of strategic trade, Stavros Nicolaou, told Reuters that if orders didn’t start coming in, the company would be forced to transition its COVID-19 production lines to produce anesthetics.

Things started looking up for Aspen late this summer, when the company said it had secured agreements with three global drugmakers to produce medicines at its French facility, Reuters reported in August.

At the time, Aspen had invested around 10 billion rand (roughly $541 million) to manufacture sterile drugs in South Africa and France in anticipation of COVID-19 vaccine demand, the publication reported.