SA’s pharmaceutical success story

29 July 2008

When Steven Saad established Aspen Pharmacare in a suburban home in 1997 at the age of 33, little did he think his small sales company would one day become South Africa’s leading pharmaceuticals producer and play a pivotal role – with support from two United States presidents – in tackling a global pandemic.

Aspen, which has its primary plant in Nelson Mandela Bay and a second facility in East London, is one of the top 20 manufacturers of generic medicines globally. December 2007 statistics confirm its local generic market share at 34%, compared to its nearest rival at 14%.

Go to Eastern Cape Madiba Action This achievement is thanks to Saad’s foresight in securing voluntary licences from multinational pharmaceutical companies for the manufacture of more affordable generic antiretrovirals.

Antiretrovirals (ARVs) substantially extend the lives of people living with HIV/Aids and help prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

Apart from developing Africa’s first generic ARV (Stavudine), launched in 2003, Aspen also manufactures an extensive basket of ARVs all registered with the SA Medicines Control Council.

Backing from two US presidents

Aspen is the only southern hemisphere manufacturer selected by the US-based Clinton Foundation to produce cheaper HIV/Aids ARV medicines. The 2006 agreement between former US President Bill Clinton and Aspen focuses on reducing costs and scaling up production of ARVs. It has resulted in the cost of generic ARVs in developing countries being reduced by one-third to one-half of the original price.

“Treatment, once started, is a lifelong commitment, and over time patients move from low-price first-line drugs to second-line combinations that are at least 10 times more expensive,” Clinton is on record as saying. “Keeping the global cost of Aids treatment sustainable will only be possible if we lower the prices of these medicines.”

Aspen was also chosen as the world’s first supplier of generic ARVs under US President George Bush’s $15-billion Emergency Plan for Aids Relief.

Part of the approval process involved a rigorous assessment of Aspen’s R200-million oral solid dosage facility in Port Elizabeth, which manufactures generic ARVs and capsules. The facility is considered to be the most modern of its kind in Africa.

Believing in the Eastern Cape

Saad was recognised for his leadership and entrepreneurial spirit when he won the coveted Ernst & Young 2004 World Entrepreneur of the year award for South Africa. He narrowly lost the World Entrepreneur title in a vote-out.

Speaking of his love for the Eastern Cape, Saad said he decided to establish Aspen’s primary plant in Port Elizabeth because he believed in the capability and intellectual property of the local manufacturing facility.

“Aspen is committed to the development and upliftment of the South African pharmaceutical manufacturing industry. At a time when most pharmaceutical manufacturers are divesting locally, Aspen has continued to show commitment with a capital injection of more than R1-billion in the Eastern Cape.”

Port Elizabeth, East London plants

The Port Elizabeth plant is South Africa’s leading producer of tablets and capsules, and also manufactures liquid dosage forms such as syrups, suspensions and solutions, as well as creams, ointments and suppositories.

Continual enhancements to the plant include additional bottle packing capabilities to service a growing need in the ARV market for delivery of product in this format.

In March 2006, Aspen began construction of a R400-million sterile facility in Port Elizabeth, with production capabilities in injectables (including hormonals), freeze-dried vials for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, and other products. Commercial production was scheduled to commence by the end of 2008.

Aspen’s East London-based facility has extensive manufacturing capability and capacity in various categories, including penicillin, oral contraceptives, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs), complementary medicines, cosmetics, capsules, powders, creams, ointments, lotions, liquids and tinctures.

The site continues to grow, with increased volume being driven by buoyant toothpaste and penicillin sales. Production capabilities have been enhanced through ongoing investment, and further increase in output is planned with the re-alignment of products from other facilities that suit East London’s flexible short-run production profile.

This article was first published in Eastern Cape Madiba Action, winter 2008 edition. Republished here with kind permission.