On Thursday, the US shocked many by announcing that it would support a temporary patent waiver on Covid-19 vaccines.
Currently, only pharmaceutical companies that own the patents for the vaccines are allowed to manufacture the jabs. But lifting the patent rights means that they will lose this exclusive right. Their vaccine formulas can then be used by other parties to manufacture generic versions of these vaccines, without fear that they will be sued.
South African company Aspen, the largest medicine producer on the continent, confirmed to Fin24 that it will be able to pursue this avenue.
"While it is difficult to provide all details in this regard, it can be confirmed that Aspen’s sterile manufacturing capacity would enable it to manufacture another vaccine – generic or otherwise – provided the necessary technical transfers are effected and regulatory registrations are in place," said Aspen’s group communications manager, Shauneen Beukes, on Thursday.
Aspen currently has a deal with Johnson & Johnson to package its vaccines at its Gqeberha factory. South Africa has ordered 31 million of these vaccines, but the first delivery has been delayed due to the introduction of new safety checks, following problems at a US plant.
Aspen has invested more than R3 billion in the Eastern Cape facility in recent years to ensure a high-tech, sterile environment. The plant can produce as many as 300 million doses of a vaccine.
Adcock Ingram, another local pharmaceutical manufacturer, said that it doesn't have capacity to manufacture vaccines at its plants. The company also does not have plans to build a new manufacturing facility for the purposes of manufacturing vaccines.
The World Trade Organization still has to approve the intellectual property waiver on vaccines, but US support has made this more likely. South Africa and India have campaigned for the waiver for many months.
Negotiations at the WTO to get a consensus may take months, Reuters reported. In a statement on Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the negotiations "provide the global community, and especially leading economies, with both an opportunity and the challenge to act in the best interest of all humanity".
The US announcement was a sharp reversal from its previous position, but a US trade representative said that the pandemic called for "extraordinary" measures.
The US decision triggered losses in the share prices of large pharmaceutical companies on Wednesday, with share prices falling further on Thursday. Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson all suffered losses as investors consider the financial impact of the temporary patent losses.