J&J inks vaccine licensing deal with Aspen, paving the way for Africa's first local COVID-19 shot

South Africa’s Aspen has clinched its COVID-19 vaccine licensing deal with Johnson & Johnson in a move the company last year said could be a “game-changer” on the path to Africa’s vaccine sovereignty.

Under the deal, Aspen will be able to manufacture and distribute J&J’s COVID shot in Africa, with the goal to boost COVID-19 vaccination rates across the continent, J&J said in a release.

Specifically, the South African manufacturer will receive drug substances from J&J, which it will use to produce finished, Aspen-branded vaccines for the African public sector. Aspen will make the shots available to all 55 African Union member states, plus multilateral organizations supporting Africa’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts, such as the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust and the COVAX Facility.

The company is already packaging J&J’s vaccine at its factory in South Africa. It plans to market J&J’s single-dose shot in Africa under the moniker Aspenovax, Stavros Nicolaou, Ph.D., group senior executive of strategic trade at Aspen Pharma Group, told Fierce Pharma in December.

At the time, the Aspen exec said the forthcoming licensing deal was “monumental” on two counts: First, an Aspen branded shot would “de facto” provide Africa with its first COVID-19 vaccine, Nicolaou said. Second, the pact would go a long way toward building local vaccine manufacturing capacity on the continent.

“With the conclusion of this agreement, our vision for Africa’s own vaccine has become a reality,” Stephen Saad, Aspen Group chief executive, said in a statement.

Global vaccination efforts are key to controlling the pandemic and curbing the risk of new emerging variants, J&J said. Currently, roughly 12% of people in Africa are fully vaccinated, which falls well below the World Health Organization’s 70% vaccination threshold, J&J added.

So far, Johnson & Johnson says it’s shipped more than 200 million vaccine doses to Africa through a mix of purchase agreements and government donations.

Elsewhere, mRNA players Moderna and BioNTech have been plowing ahead with their own African vaccine manufacturing plans.

Pfizer-partnered BioNTech last month said its plan would hinge on modular factories housed in shipping containers. Dubbed BioNTainers, the portable mRNA plants are kitted out to make the company’s COVID-19 vaccine from start to finish, save for the final fill-finish step. The company expects to set up its modular factories in Senegal, Rwanda and potentially South Africa.

Meanwhile, Moderna this week said it had tapped Kenya as the country for its $500 million mRNA vaccine manufacturing plant in Africa. The facility, which was first announced in October, will aim to produce up to 500 million vaccine doses a year. Moderna added that it’s working toward getting the plant built and operational to fill doses of its COVID-19 vaccines in Africa by 2023, depending on pandemic demand.