'Our worst nightmare realized:' Investors, WHO slam J&J for exporting COVID shots produced in Africa

As Africa’s COVID-19 vaccinations lagged behind the rest of the world, Aspen Pharmacare’s manufacturing facility in South Africa scored a deal to help boost production of Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot jab for the region. 

But it turns out that most of the J&J shots bottled and packaged at Aspen’s site are going to Europe, not Africa, The New York Times reported earlier this week. The news has since swiftly drawn the ire of health advocates and one outspoken investor group, which warned that J&J’s reputation and its “social license to operate” are now at risk. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on Wednesday that he was “stunned” by the revelation, urging J&J to prioritize shipments to Africa instead. 

Following the outpour of backlash, the European Commission on Thursday maintained that the exports from Aspen's facility are only temporary, Reuters reports.

The EU reached the export agreement with South Africa after J&J ran into manufacturing problems at Emergent BioSolution’s troubled plant in Baltimore, according to the news service. The Emergent fiasco has set J&J back on a number of its orders globally. 

J&J told Fierce Pharma in a statement that i's committed to ensuring equitable access to its vaccine and continues to provide it at a not-for-profit price. 

"Johnson & Johnson does not direct allocation of its vaccine within each country nor is the Company involved in negotiations that have occurred in some cases between countries relating to the re-allocation or donation of the vaccine," the company said. 

Late last year, J&J teamed up with Aspen, the largest pharmaceutical company in Africa, to help produce jabs for African Union member states. J&J expected deliveries for that order to start in the third quarter of 2021.  

In turn, Aspen dedicated its South African site to perform the last-leg of the vaccine's manufacturing, known as "fill and finish." In late July, the U.S. funneled $200 million into Aspen’s facility to bolster its output. 

But in June, Aspen said that some of the bulk substance that had arrived from Emergent’s plant had to be tossed due to concerns over potential contamination. 

Even though South Africa ordered 31 million doses of J&J's shot back in April, the country is still waiting to receive the bulk of its order, the Times reported on Monday. Only 7.2% of the country's population is vaccinated so far.

Instead, the J&J shots from Aspen's plant are going to Europe, NYT reports, citing J&J, Aspen and South African officials, as well as export records. Amid the backlash, the EU maintained on Thursday that fill-finish duties for EU-bound doses will move to a J&J factory in Europe next month, Reuters reports, citing an EU spokesperson. 

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Still, the revelation has been met with fierce criticism from a number of groups, including the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), a group of activist shareholders that represents over 300 faith communities and organizations. 

The move to prioritize doses for European countries while leaving behind low- and middle-income countries has helped foster a “vaccine apartheid,” according to an ICCR statement on Wednesday. 

While the idea that the vaccine would be bottled and packed in South Africa raised the hope that the shots would go toward the continent, that “did not come to pass,” the group said.

“This is our worst nightmare realized,” Meg Jones-Monteiro, ICCR’s program director for health equity, said in a statement. 

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ICCR, which previously pressed J&J to outline how it would ensure equitable global vaccine access earlier this year, also took aim at the drugmaker’s supply contract with South Africa. The company “employed unjust tactics to exact special provisions” compared with other countries, ICCR argues.

For one, J&J’s contract prohibits the government from banning vaccine exports, a move that the European Union and India used to ensure enough supplies domestically, the Times reports. It also sets a high bar for the country to link the company to injuries following its COVID-19 shot.

With South Africa facing a third wave of COVID-19 driven by the troublesome Delta variant, J&J’s “failure” to honor its supply agreement to the country, as well as its negotiating tactics, “will be viewed as preying on the desperation of lesser-resourced nations,” Cathy Rowan, director of socially responsible investments for Trinity Health, said in ICCR’s statement.

Editor's note: This story was updated to attribute a quote to Meg Jones-Monteiro, ICCR’s program director for health equity.