The first facility to produce COVID-19 "vaccines" in Africa is on the brink of closure. Despite being assured by COVAX and others that there would be enough demand for the only COVID jab produced in Africa, the continent's biggest drug company has received no orders. South Africa's Aspen Pharmacare signed a licensing agreement late last year to bottle and sell the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 "vaccine," but six months later, an overall drop-off in demand for the shot has put the plans in doubt.
Africa was initially left out of the rush for vaccines early in the pandemic, and the licensing deal was hailed by many, including the World Health Organization (WHO), as a lifeline for the continent. However, as reported by FT, the resistance to getting the "vaccine" reflects faltering demand in South Africa and is part of a broader trend across the continent. Only 5 percent of Africa's population has received a booster shot, and just under a third of the 60 million people there are double vaccinated.
Interestingly, COVID-19 deaths have been lower across Africa than on other continents. According to analysis by the WHO, Africa has accounted for only 8.3 percent of the world's 14.9 million excess deaths during the pandemic. Some experts believe the low death rate could be because Africa is the youngest continent, with a median age of 19.7 compared to 42.5 in Europe.
Still, with just 17.4 percent of its people double-vaccinated, Africa holds the lowest vaccine rate of any other continent. And as the WHO's self-declared June 22, 2022, deadline fast approaches for countries to achieve 70 percent double vaccination against COVID-19, only two countries (Seychelles and Mauritius) in Africa have reached that goal.
Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, noted that WHO's 70 percent goal in June was "clearly not achievable for most countries in Africa." He added he hopes to reach the WHO vaccine objective by the end of 2022. Nonetheless, with an Omicron variant that proved less deadly, coupled with vaccine hesitancy due to nearly two-thirds of Africans having already been infected with COVID, many public health officials have privately expressed that the WHO target is beyond reach. Commenting on Africa's sentiment toward the WHO directive, FT noted:
"A former high-ranking AU official in the body's jab rollout admitted the goal of reaching 70 percent vaccination coverage was no longer relevant for most African countries but had not been scrapped because no one wants to be the first to say we've dropped it."
Indeed, with an Omicron peak that went "largely unnoticed" in the daily lives of those living in Africa, which also had little impact on severe illness or death rates, "people are tired of it." Even so, Nkengasong emphasized despite waning demand across Africa to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the local vaccine production cannot be allowed to fall by the wayside. He said:
"Every region of the world, including Africa, should be able to produce vaccines in a timely fashion so that we don't get into these squabbles of accusing the north of depriving the south of vaccines."
When the agreement between Aspen and J&J was made, the WHO called it a "transformative moment" in the push towards leveling stark inequalities in access to COVID shots. However, Stavros Nicolaou, Aspen's senior director, said with not a single order for its jab (called Aspenovax), the company is considering using its brand new facility to make anesthetics. Sharing the initial hype as the deal commenced, Nicolaou remarked:
"There were a lot of calls both from the West and from Africa that the best way to try and solve the problem was to establish our own local vaccine production capacity. What happened next "sends an incredibly bad message."
Indeed, as the world found itself "awash with [COVID] doses that few people are keen to take," COVAX and its backer—the global vaccine alliance GAVI, financed by Bill Gates—held back from purchasing COVID vaccine doses from Aspen. Regardless of the reason(s), talks for the licensing agreement between J&J and Aspen have been in the pipeline for over a year. Knowing this, Nicolaou stated, "the world at large can't say—we didn't know there was going to be Aspen capacity."
Aspen's venture was funded in June by the World Bank and government agencies in the U.S., France, and Germany, who, in a gesture worth $626 million, indicated the facility was needed to ensure vaccines were made on the African continent.
Meanwhile, as Pfizer and Moderna both have plans to produce COVID jabs on the continent, Nicolaou added that should GAVI and COVAX fail to show interest soon, the "need for regional manufacture will remain just a political nicety which has no substance."