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UPDATE 1-S.Africa's Aspen Pharmacare to supply J&J's COVID-19 vaccine by end-June

(Adds details from interview, background)

JOHANNESBURG, March 12 (Reuters) - Aspen Pharmacare plans to start supplying Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine doses from its facility in South Africa before the end of June, its chief executive said on Friday.

Stephen Saad told Reuters in an interview that the technology transfer from J&J has “gone very well, and we are now committing (to) commercial supply in our financial year”, which ends June 30.

Aspen’s production timeline for the vaccine is critical for South Africa as the country is relying heavily on J&J’s doses to inoculate a significant portion of the 40 million people it is targeting to reach so-called herd immunity.

Health experts have indicated that if the vaccines for South Africa are supplied directly from Aspen’s facility it would save costs and could speed up vaccine roll-out.

The country is already the worst hit in Africa mainly due to a spike in coronavirus infections seen in December and January, led by a more contagious variant of the virus.

J&J’s vaccine was shown to be 89% effective at preventing severe disease in the South African leg of a big global trial.

South Africa has signed an agreement for 11 million J&J doses with an option to get another 20 million, its Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has said, but it is not clear how many of the doses will come from Aspen.

Saad said that will depend on the negotiations between African governments and J&J but said he hoped a chunk of its supply could meet the demand from South Africa and the rest of the continent.

Aspen has committed to supplying 300 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, though the final amount that will be manufactured will depend on demand from J&J, Saad said.

He said the company has a capacity to manufacture 600 million doses of vaccines in South Africa, but there had been no discussions with J&J or any other company to manufacture more COVID-19 vaccines beyond the committed number. (Reporting by Promit Mukherjee; Editing by Jason Neely and Jan Harvey)

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