SOUTH Africa is open for business, with good infrastructure, a strong financial system and a deep human capital and talent pool to draw from.
That was the upbeat message from Dr Stavros Nicolaou, Group Senior Executive for Strategic Trade at Aspen Pharmacare, speaking ahead of the fourth South African Investment Conference (SAIC) in Johannesburg recently.
Since its launch in 2018, the SAIC has drawn delegates from South Africa and the world. The conference, which has been held annually until 2020, has showcased investment opportunities available in the country. It has attracted an estimated R770 billion in commitments across a wide range of economic sectors.
The fourth SAIC, which was meant to be held in November 2021, was postponed to this year due to COVID-19 considerations.
Aspen was among the companies who raised their hand at the inaugural conference in 2018, pledging R3.4 billion. The full investment has since materialised.
“That investment means our South African facility in Gqeberha that we made a pledge for is now one, if not the world’s largest manufacturer and supplier of general anaesthetics. It is also the first site for the production of the COVID vaccine on the African continent,” Nicolaou said in an interview with the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS).
The local company, which has been operating for over two decades, has a presence in over 50 countries with its flagship manufacturing assets based in Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape.
The sterile facility contains state-of-the-art pharmaceutical equipment and systems used to manufacture advanced sterile medicines, including vaccines. The company has played a role in responding to pandemics such as HIV and AIDS, multi-drug resistant Tuberculosis (TB) and most recently, COVID-19.
In the early onset of the pandemic, Aspen was a significant supplier – both domestically and in other parts of the world like Europe – of general anaesthetics and muscle relaxants needed to ventilate patients.
The company was also the first African country to produce the COVID-19 vaccine under contract manufacturing for Johnson & Johnson (J&J), the majority of which have gone into African arms. Aspen has produced close to 180 million vaccine doses.
“That facility is also the facility that produced the first generic antiretroviral product for the African continent. The first COVID vaccine to be produced in the Southern hemisphere and on the African continent, under contract manufacturing with J&J came from that same facility.”
The company, which also has manufacturing operations in East London as well as a chemicals facility in Cape Town, employs around 3000 people at its manufacturing operations.
In a country facing high levels of unemployment, Aspen’s investment has helped many to put food on the table, Nicolaou said.
“The investment we pledged for in 2018 has produced over 200 new jobs and these are highly skilled, high-tech jobs with a significant leaning towards an export orientation and of course, our country needs exports.”
He added that the workforce at the plant in Gqeberha has mainly been drawn from New Brighton and other nearby areas.
“The talent that comes from there is a talent that we’re able to grow and very often that talent becomes globally competitive.”
The company recently received the licensing rights for the J&J vaccine. The agreement means that Aspen can now package, sell as well as distribute J&J’s COVID-19 vaccines under its own brand.
“We will now have our own vaccine in Africa called Aspenovax made in Gqeberha for South Africans [and] the African continent. We will not have a dependence on COVID vaccines externally. We now have our own production base in South Africa. We will make sure that Africans are not left at the back end of the queue when COVID vaccines are required,” Nicolaou said.
In a further boost for South Africa’s pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Buti Manamela has announced a multi-million-rand initiative aimed at reducing South Africa’s reliance on the importation of critical drugs, potentially of saving the country billions of rands annually.
Manamela made the announcement at the launch recently of the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient Plus technology innovation facility, which houses a an organic synthesis research laboratory.
The Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), an entity of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), invested R15 million towards the establishment of the API Cluster.
This investment is aimed at driving technology development and commercialisation of local API manufacturing focusing on the synthesis of small molecule APIs for human health using modern manufacturing technology.
The API+ Laboratory will support the analytical testing required during the synthetic process of API molecule development. This laboratory will serve the analytical needs within the academia and industry and thus ensure the commercial translation of the API molecules synthesised towards full scale production.
APIs are the biologically active components in a pharmaceutical drug which are formulated with other ingredients to make finished pharmaceutical products such as tablets and capsules. It costs South Africa R15 billion a year to import a vast majority of the APIs used to formulate medicines in local plants. This dependence has at times led to import and distribution problems.
The Deputy Minister said the manufacture of APIs has been a priority for the South African government since the large-scale roll-out of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs for those living with HIV and Aids, which unsurprisingly constituted a huge part of government’s national health expenditure.
“It therefore goes without saying that reliance on the importation of finished drugs or the APIs not only burdens the country with a security of supply risk, but also results in a significant trade deficit for the pharmaceutical sector,” he said.