SOUTH AFRICA – Aspen Pharmacare has made known plans to enter into a licensing agreement with Johnson & Johnson allowing the South African drug company to make its own-branded Covid-19 vaccine.

The agreement, confirmed by Aspen in a statement, would extend an existing deal for it to package and fill vials of the US company’s shots at a plant in South Africa.

The South African-based pharmaceutical plans to launch this vaccine under the brand name ‘Aspenovax’, it said in a trading statement on Tuesday.

The group said it will manufacture the vaccine using drug substances supplied by Johnson & Johnson, and then sell the vaccine under the Aspenovax branding to a number of African countries.

The agreement will run until the end of 2026 and includes the right to manufacture additional versions based on booster shots or new Covid-19 variants.

Aspen, Africa’s largest drug maker, has the capacity to manufacture as many as 300 million doses of the J&J shot and plans to increase that over time to more than 700 million by January 2023.

The agreement comes as South Africa grapples with the recent discovery of the new Omicron Covid-19 variant. Details on the variant are scarce, and scientists say they currently don’t have enough information on how transmissible the variant is or whether existing vaccines could be less effective.

The variant is driving a fourth wave of Covid-19 infections in Gauteng, with the province reporting high levels of Covid-19 cases and hospital admissions.

According to Dr Waasila Jassat of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, hospital admissions have mostly been recorded in Tshwane, in both the private and public sectors.

However, the other districts are also starting to show signs of the peak in those who land in hospital because of Covid-19 since the past week, with the unvaccinated more likely to seek hospital treatment or die.

There’s a sharp week on week increase. And it’s important to note because as we know that when the hospitals become overwhelmed, there’s less capacity and more mortality.”

According to Jassat, who was speaking during a media briefing with Health Minister, Dr Joe Phaahla, the highest risk of admissions is still in the over 65 age group and has been peaking in all age groups over the last six weeks.

However, the percentage in the middle age group was low, while data shows that it was ‘very’ high in young children. “Of course, higher proportions of older people are being admitted, because they’re at risk for more severe disease,” she said.

New vaccines could be necessary

The plethora of mutations in the omicron variant are likely to help it evade protection provided by existing vaccines, making it necessary to develop new immunizations, Moderna chief executive Stephane Bancel told the Financial Times.

It may take months for pharmaceutical companies to develop and deploy updated immunizations that they can deliver in large numbers, Bancel said in an interview with the newspaper.

There is no way the current shots will provide the same level of protection against omicron as they do against delta, he said.

The current vaccines from companies including Moderna, Pfizer, BioNTech AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson are all able to help reduce the risk of severe infection and death from the previous strains of the virus, though they work less well against the more transmissible delta variant.

Research is still underway to determine if omicron causes the same level of illness as older versions of the virus, if it can evade protection from vaccines and previous infections, and if it will be able to outcompete the existing strains as the pathogen continues to circulate throughout the world.

Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla said his company will be ready with a vaccine targeting omicron in 100 days, should it be necessary.

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