Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines shipped from South Africa to Europe to be returned

Johnson & Johnson drew sharp criticism two weeks ago amid reports that doses of its single-shot COVID-19 vaccine produced in South Africa were being exported to Europe. Now, it appears that the arrangement is coming to an end.

J&J doses manufactured at Aspen Pharmacare’s facility in South Africa will now be shipped to African countries, the Wall Street Journal reports, citing comments from African Union’s Strive Masiyiwa. In addition, millions of doses that had been shipped to Europe and stored in warehouses will be returned to the continent.

The African Union did not disclose how many doses would return to the continent, although fewer than 20 million doses were shipped in total, said Masiyiwa, who leads the union's vaccine acquisition team. 

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Late last year, J&J teamed up with Aspen, the largest pharmaceutical company in Africa, to help produce jabs for African Union member states. In turn, Aspen dedicated its South African site to perform the last leg of the vaccine's manufacturing, known as "fill and finish."

In mid-August, however, The New York Times reported that the J&J shots bottled and packaged at Aspen’s facility were being shipped over to Europe—even though Africa’s COVID-19 vaccinations lagged behind the rest of the world. 

The continent has vaccinated just 3% of its 1.3 billion people, although health officials are aiming for 60%. The news even drew the ire of the head of the World Health Organization, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said he was “stunned” by the revelation. 

Under Aspen’s contract with J&J, roughly 40% of its produced doses were expected to go to Europe in September, according to the Journal's report. But that agreement has now been terminated, and the vaccines finished at Aspen’s facility “are now under the control of the South African government,” Masiyiwa said. 

An EU official previously said last month that the deal with South Africa was only temporary after J&J ran into manufacturing problems at Emergent BioSolution’s troubled plant in Baltimore, setting it back on orders globally. The bloc maintained that fill-finish duties for EU-bound doses will move to a J&J factory in Europe in September, Reuters reported at the time. 

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As for South Africa, Aspen is looking to take its deal with J&J a step further, the company revealed this week. The CDMO is in discussions with J&J to enter into a licensing agreement, rather than its current contract production deal, which would allow Aspen to manufacture and sell the one-shot jab in Africa. 

The setup would be similar to AstraZeneca’s deal with India’s Serum Institute, Aspen Chief Executive Stephen Saad told Reuters on Thursday. Aspen has served as a key pandemic player for Africa as the first site to have churned out doses of COVID-19 vaccines.