UPDATE 2-S.Africa's Aspen, J&J in talks to expand COVID-19 vaccine production

(Recasts with J&J talks)

By Promit Mukherjee

JOHANNESBURG, Sept 1 (Reuters) - South African drug manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare is in talks with Johnson & Johnson to expand its production in South Africa of the latter's COVID-19 vaccine, the company said on Wednesday.

Talks are currently on for a possible Africa-wide license also, it said, without elaborating on what the license would entail.

Under its contract with J&J signed last year, Aspen imports the drug substance for the vaccine from the company and packages it - a process called 'fill and finish' - at its plant in South Africa.

Its contract mandates it to supply 30 million doses to South Africa and 220 million to the rest of Africa.

However, its supplies had been delayed due to a host of problems related to export of the drug substance to manufacture the vaccine and a raft of approvals in the United States and South Africa.

Under a new agreement, Aspen is also packaging the vaccine to supply to the European Union, a mechanism which had been criticised by several global health experts due to uneven vaccine supplies and the under-vaccinated population in Africa.

It began supplies to South Africa at the end of July.

"Aspen is hopeful that the current discussions between Johnson & Johnson and Aspen, including a possible license for Africa, could make a meaningful contribution to improving equitable COVID-19 vaccine access for the continent," the company said in a statement.

However, it did not respond to an email seeking clarity on the specifics of the license.

J&J did not immediately respond to en email seeking further details.

The company posted a 21% increase in annual profit on Wednesday with headline earnings per share - the main measure of corporate profit in South Africa - at 1,204 cents for the year ended June 30.

The pharmaceuticals major resumed dividends, announcing a payout of 262 cents per share. It said future distributions would continue to be decided on a year-to-year basis. ($1 = 14.3978 rand) (Reporting by Promit Mukherjee Editing by Emma Rumney, Mark Potter and Jonathan Oatis)