JOHANNESBURG - Vaccine-short Africa is hopeful of getting more COVID-19 doses, as a South African pharmaceutical firm is close to being the first in Africa to distribute them for sale across the continent.
U.S.-based Johnson & Johnson says it could soon grant a license to Aspen Pharmacare, Africa's biggest drugmaker, to produce an "African COVID-19 vaccine" called Aspenovax.
Aspen Pharmacare will not make its own vaccine but will package and sell the Johnson-produced vaccine as soon as early 2022. The company has a factory in South Africa from where it already distributes the Johnson & Johnson vaccine nationwide.
The proposed deal will significantly boost supplies in Africa, which has suffered serious shortages of vaccines, and is facing the spread of the new omicron variant.
The World Health Organization said only 3% of Africans are fully vaccinated.
Africa has been the focus of what African officials say is vaccine inequity, as Western countries prioritize distributing vaccines in their own nations. Boosters in the West far outnumber first vaccines in several southern African nations, statistics show.
"Africa's COVID-19 vaccination rates are significantly lower, compared to those seen in high-income countries, and we need to do something differently,' said Adrian Thomas, Johnson & Johnson's vice president for global affairs.
The distribution deal with Aspen Pharmacare will provide for uniform access to Africans and equitable pricing, the companies said.
'Quite simply, without widespread vaccination and access to vaccines, this pandemic will not come to an equitable end," Thomas said.
"We are delivering on our commitment to make available 900 million doses of our COVID-19 vaccine to the African Union and the COVAX facility,' he said. 'Only by working together can we bring together the necessary skills, expertise and resources to support the vaccination of people who are in most need at this critical stage of the pandemic."
Stephen Saad, Aspen's CEO and founder, said the company is well-positioned because it is based in South Africa, already distributes the vaccine nationwide and is advocating for more vaccinations on the continent.
"If Aspen was not in Africa, would any of these doses have gone to the continent?' Saad asked. 'I think not.'
Strive Masiyiwa, head of the African Union's Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, said the deal will make African nations less dependent on Western governments for vaccine supplies.
'It gives us flexibility,' Masiyiwa said. 'It gives us one of the key things we've called for: security of supply.'