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Aspen gets R531m funding to develop vaccines

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FIFI PETERS: Let’s get into the latest developments around vaccines and what is happening on that front. I can tell you that the fight for vaccine equality has continued behind closed doors, even though the Covid-19 pandemic in itself may have fallen to the wayside for a lot of people.

I say this because yesterday Aspen announced that it had received some $30 million, so that’s just over half a billion rand, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations [CEPI]. And the reason it received this money is to support an agreement that it has with the Serum Institute of India to expand the supply and sourcing of affordable vaccines here on the continent.

For more on this transaction and why we should care, I’m joined by Stavros Nicolaou, the senior executive of strategic trade development at Aspen Pharmacare Group. Stavros, thanks so much for your time, and for taking time to talk to us. I know it’s pretty hectic for you right now, but just talk to us about the significance of this deal, this transaction for Aspen, as well as the continent at large.

STAVROS NICOLAOU: Fifi, firstly thanks very much. It’s a great pleasure to join you on your programme, albeit from a very icy-cold Washington DC. Let me try and unpack what this deal means.

There are a few dimensions to it. I think the first you mentioned – which is that there’s an issue around building capacity on the African continent so that we never have Africa lurching at the back end of the queue, looking and seeking for vaccines when pandemics break – as was the experience during Covid-19.

This is a significant step, first and foremost, in enhancing Africa’s capacities and ensuring that we have future security of supply, both with respect to outbreaks of pandemics, but also for routine vaccines. Secondly, this is an important step in that it’s a significant vote of confidence by the global community.

CEPI and the Gates Foundation are both important and significant global players in the vaccine space.

The fact that they have made grants available and are putting skin in the game with us at Aspen speaks volumes for the scientific and manufacturing capability that exist at Aspen and in our country more broadly.

It’s really a delight to say that, because I was listening to your earlier stories, and there’s so much doom and gloom around. Well, this is quite a vote of confidence in South Africa, and I think we need that vote of confidence.

And then, lastly, this does allow Aspen to diversify its vaccine product portfolio and pipeline. We are looking at routine vaccines here in this instance. So it does enable capacity for [the] outbreak of pandemics, what we call outbreak vaccines. But, more importantly, it moves us in the direction of routine vaccines.

This is a more stable, consistent business in that you require these vaccines on an annual basis. Many if not all of your listeners would’ve experienced these vaccines. These are routinely paediatric vaccines we give to young children – [for] things like meningitis, rotovirus, what we call the ‘6-in-1 hexavalent’.

These cover routine vaccines that all of us are used to and experience in our country and on our continent, but unfortunately are usually inaccessible or in short supply.

So this will help the continent boost its vaccination rates futuristically as well.

FIFI PETERS: So if we just tick off the box here, we can tick off the supply box in terms of the capacity in future that this transaction will give us as a constant. But I’d like to know where the demand and the anticipated demand is going to come from, as you see it, for all these vaccines that you’ll be making as Aspen.

STAVROS NICOLAOU: Fifi, firstly I think it’s worth just rehearsing a statistic that I think is well known now.

Africa has 17% of the world’s population, but saddles 28% of the disease burden. There’s nothing more effective at preventing both mortality and morbidity than vaccines.

So the vaccine uptake in consumption on the continent is understated at this point in time. Excluding Covid, around 1.2 billion to 1.3 billion doses of vaccines are administered.

This is expected to grow in time, both in terms of uptake of vaccine consumption, but also introducing new vaccines. There are some wonderful novel vaccine solutions that are coming out for many diseases that are dreaded diseases like HPV, for example. HPV leads to cervical cancer. It’s the most dominant or prevalent cancer in women on the continent.

So there’s room for expansion, both in uptake but also in new vaccines that will make a significant public-health difference on the continent.

FIFI PETERS: And your shareholders, what does this mean for Aspen shareholders?

STAVROS NICOLAOU: Aspen has made its ambitions very clear in that we have invested heavily in sterile capacity and capability. Sterile solutions and capacity are not readily available on our continent.

Producing or manufacturing steriles is a lot more complex than making tablets and capsules, so this is a capacity that is both scarce and strategic for the continent.

This is a further step in enhancing and optimising the use of our sterile capacity on the continent to provide solutions, not only for Africa but beyond as well.

So from a shareholder perspective, I think this is a continuation of our stated ambition to be a leading player on the continent and perhaps globally in the sterile space.

And, incidentally, ‘steriles’ is not just vaccines, Fifi. Let me just clarify that. There are other sterile products, what we call biologics and biosimilars that are also significantly underutilised and inaccessible on the African continent.

FIFI PETERS: Lastly, and perhaps more importantly – actually not more importantly – what are you doing in Washington?

STAVROS NICOLAOU: I think it’s very important, actually, Fifi. I’m attending the Joe Biden US-Africa Leaders’ Summit, and in fact this evening there’s a highly significant healthcare event that’s being held here in Washington DC that will include most of the African health leaders, and I’m expecting that there will be further support for regional manufacturing on the continent – certainly discussed if not announced at this dinner this evening.

FIFI PETERS: Right. So new deals could be announced for the continent is what you’re saying?

STAVROS NICOLAOU: No, I don’t think new deals, but I think at a policy level, if you have the US supporting enhanced regional manufacturing on the African continent, that is a further significant development. So that’s what we’ll be looking out for.

There have been some noises around that, and perhaps we can pick up on that in the very near future.

But this is a very significant conference for the continent. There are 47 African heads of state in Washington today, as we speak.

Unfortunately, President Ramaphosa couldn’t make it because of the parliamentary debate and the ANC conference, but Minister Naledi Pandor is here representing him in his stead. But we are very interested to hear what comes out of that, particularly at a healthcare level.

FIFI PETERS: That’s quite the turnout for the continent. Almost all countries are represented there at the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit. Stavros, thanks so much. We’ll keep watching closely what developments are announced, particularly on the policy front, as you have mentioned. But thanks for taking the time to talk to us in your busy schedule.

Stavros Nicolaou is the senior executive for strategic trade development at Aspen Pharmacare Group.

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