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Donors pledge $700 mn to boost jab output by SAfrica’s Aspen

International donors on Wednesday pledged over $700 million to South African pharmaceutical giant Aspen to boost production of Covid-19 vaccines and treatment on the under-vaccinated continent.

Africa, which mainly relies on the United Nations and the African Union for its jabs, has struggled to keep up with the pace of vaccination elsewhere in the world.

Just over one percent of Africa’s population was fully vaccinated as of last week, according to the World Health Organization, as many countries grapple with third infection waves fuelled by more transmissible virus variants.

Governments across Africa have called on the international community to help bolster the continent’s vaccine supply chain to speed up the rollout.

The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) on Wednesday announced a 600 million euro ($711 million) “long-term financing package” for Aspen “to support the development of vaccines for African countries”.

The package will be co-funded by the IFC as well as French, German and American development institutions.

IFC managing director Makhtar Diop said that having an immunised population would be key to Africa’s economic recovery from the pandemic.

“The fact that we have only one percent of the African population which is now vaccinated will make it slower,” he told AFP, stressing the impact on tourism and trade.

The US State Department said the funding “supports the Administration’s goal to scale up vaccine production, invest in African ingenuity and resilience, and help the global community beat this Covid-19 pandemic.”

– Africa’s own jabs –

Africa is working with the European Union and other partners to help create regional vaccine manufacturing hubs.

Aspen already imports drug components from US vaccine producer Johnson & Johnson and handles the final syringe filling and packaging process at a site in the southeastern city of Gqeberha.

“We are actively seeking opportunities to further extend and capacitate Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing,” Aspen’s Group CEO Stephen Saad said in a statement.

The company aims to “play a meaningful role in contributing to the objective of delivering the majority of Africa’s needs from production sites located in Africa,” he added.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has been particularly vocal about global imbalances in vaccine procurement, stressing the need for the continent to fend for itself.

The country will host the continent’s first Covid-19 vaccine production facility, although no doses are expected from it until next year.

South Africa and India are meanwhile also leading calls to temporarily waive intellectual property rights over jabs to help poorer countries immunise their populations.

With some 5.5 million reported cases and around 142,000 deaths among its nearly 1.3 billion people, Africa is still the world’s least-affected continent after Oceania, according to an AFP tally.