Morrison told months ago of need for locally made Pfizer-style vaccines
For our free coronavirus pandemic coverage, learn more here.
Medical researchers and scientists have been lobbying the Morrison government for almost a year about the need to develop an mRNA vaccine manufacturing capacity in Australia, but action was delayed until a few months ago.
Some researchers began advocating last August for work on “messenger RNA” technology, which is behind the success of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and whose usefulness became clear as the global pandemic intensified last year.
Australian scientists and industry groups want to develop onshore capacity to make vaccines like the Pfizer mRNA shot.Credit:Getty
However, it was not until May this year that the government issued a so-called “approach to market”, inviting interested parties to provide a fully-costed proposal to manufacture the vaccines in Australia within one to three years. A dozen proposals to make the vaccines locally are now being considered.
Department officials have estimated that it could take up to four years to establish mRNA manufacturing production in Australia, depending on whether a facility was adapted from an existing site or built from scratch.
University of Western Australia associate professor Archa Fox is among the members of the Australian RNA Production Consortium, which has been advocating action for 12 months. They told government officials that having production capacity in Australia would help fight COVID-19 and its variants and safeguard against other diseases into the future.
Another expert, who did not want to be named for fear of losing future work, said of the attempt to convince the government, “we got no joy”.
Monash University professor Colin Pouton, who is part of a team producing a COVID-19 mRNA vaccine to be clinically trialled in November, agreed that Australia had been slow off the mark.
“When we knew those vaccines were working, why wouldn’t we get involved in developing mRNA manufacturing straight away? We should have done something months ago.”
And Research Australia chief executive Nadia Levin, whose organisation was among the first to push for a feasibility study into mRNA production 18 months ago, warned that without significant investment in mRNA manufacturing capacity now, Australia risked missing a “golden opportunity”.
“This will require collective will, and collective will requires collective funding. I don’t underestimate what it would take, but there is great potential in this country – so let’s get moving.”
Some industry sources believe that if the federal government had acted in the middle of last year, it may have been possible to eventually get a local biotech company as the contract manufacturer for Moderna or Pfizer, just as the Melbourne-based CSL has been contracted to make the AstraZeneca vaccine. AstraZeneca is currently the only COVID-19 vaccine manufactured locally.
The issue is contentious for the government, whose slow vaccine rollout has been caused in part by the fact that Australia is at the mercy of stretched global markets when procuring mRNA drugs such as Pfizer and Moderna. Australia is already months behind other countries in the region in signing a major global partner for local mRNA facilities after Singapore, South Korea and China struck agreements in May for domestic production.
The Age asked Health Minister Greg Hunt why the Commonwealth did not start looking at producing an mRNA vaccine in Australia earlier. “The government based its purchasing on the advice of the Science and Industry Technical Advisory Group, led by Professor Brendan Murphy,” a spokesman for the minister said.
In late July Mr Hunt told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that an advisory group that was formed in August 2020 suggested to him that three categories of vaccines looked hopeful: protein, viral vector and mRNA.
“They said ‘some vaccines will succeed, some vaccines will fail, but we recommend that you have the most likely to succeed – the protein [vaccine]. But also, there’s a good chance that the viral vector and mRNA will work’,” Mr Hunt said. “So you want to have irons in every fire.”
The protein-based vaccine the government backed was the University of Queensland drug, but it was abandoned last year due to HIV false positives. The viral vector vaccine purchased was AstraZeneca.
Messenger RNA teaches human cells how to make a protein, which triggers an immune response in the body. This immune response produces antibodies, in turn protecting people from getting infected if a real virus enters.
In a statement, the Department of Industry said mRNA vaccines were an “emerging technology which was only approved for human use in December 2020”.
Professor of pharmaceutical biology Colin Pouton and bio-engineer Dr Harry Al-Wassiti with the new trial COVID-19 vaccine at Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Credit:Penny Stephens
Damian Purcell, who heads the molecular virology lab at the Doherty Institute, said mRNA vaccines would not be hard to make in a lab, but the challenge was mass production, which requires an extremely high level of expertise.
He said there were too few vaccine research and development projects supported by Australian bodies, and not enough funding to make a patient-ready product. “It’s trying to put a man on the moon with a sling-shot budget,” he said.
In Victoria, the Andrews government has moved to accelerate production of mRNA drugs by setting up a $50 million agency, mRNA Victoria, to establish a commercial-scale mRNA manufacturing capability within the next 12 months. Victoria also said it wants to work collaboratively with the federal government – a move that has been viewed as an important “first step”.
As part of the Commonwealth’s approach-to-market, applications are now being considered from various manufacturers, including CSL and South Australian-based BioCina.
Consultants were not appointed until December 24 last year to advise Canberra on the country’s capacity to produce mRNA vaccines.
At an APEC meeting last month to discuss recovery from the pandemic, Prime Minister Scott Morrison talked up the need to ramp up production of mRNA vaccines in his address to world leaders.
“We produce the AstraZeneca vaccine in Australia, but particularly the mRNA vaccine production capability is something we really have to lift globally, so we can get that to more and more of the population,” he said.
The federal Department of Industry paid consultants McKinsey and Co $2.2 million to conduct a business case study of mRNA vaccine manufacturing. That report will be kept confidential.
Stay across the most crucial developments related to the pandemic with the Coronavirus Update. Sign up for the weekly newsletter.
Most Viewed in National
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article