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UPDATE 1-South Africa's Aspen could produce J&J COVID shots by end-March

* J&J says committed to engagement with South African govt

* Govt says vaccine negotiation with J&J at advanced stage

* Aspen to produce up to 300 million doses for J&J

* J&J vaccine in final trial, results by end-January (Adds govt, J&J comment)

JOHANNESBURG, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Aspen Pharmacare could start production of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines in South Africa by late March or early April if all approvals are in place, a senior company executive said.

All the vaccines produced will be exported to J&J and will be a part of its global supply inventory, Stavros Nicolaou, Group Senior Executive, Strategic Trade at Aspen, added.

“We are going to receive a tech transfer to contract manufacture for them (J&J)... Aspen has current capacity to manufacture up to 300 million doses of COVID vaccine,” Nicolaou said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday, adding that these will be exported to J&J.

South Africa’s government is in talks with J&J in an effort to secure some of this product for its own consumption. J&J is in the final phase of its clinical trials and is likely to announce results by the end of January, Nicolaou added.

The South African health ministry said late Thursday that negotiations on sourcing a vaccine are at an advanced stage with J&J. It said it will announce the developments soon.

Johnson & Johnson, in an emailed reply to Reuters, said it is committed to “continuing engagement with the South African government” on the vaccine. But did not give details on the status of the negotiations.

The government has been criticised by scientists and healthcare workers for moving too slowly to procure COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate South Africans.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said on Thursday that South Africa plans to get its first vaccines in February and could vaccinate up to 40 million people over a year to reach herd immunity.

But the government has not signed any big bilateral deals with any of the vaccine manufacturers, although it said the country would get 1.5 million vaccines from the Serum Institute of India (SII).

The government is also sourcing vaccines from the COVAX Facility, a global distribution scheme under which South Africa will start getting vaccines by the second quarter of 2021 for 10% of its population of 58 million.

Nicolaou said he was not privy to the status of the negotiations, but the government had requested that Aspen “impress upon” J&J to set aside some vaccines. (Reporting by Promit Mukherjee; Editing by Alexander Winning, Alexander Smith and Philippa Fletcher)

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