The federal government is working with the biotech industry on ways to establish large-scale mRNA vaccine manufacturing in Australia as a group of senior scientists work on a parallel plan to enable local production of the cutting-edge jabs.
The mRNA coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna yielded remarkably strong results in clinical trials and are expected to be much easier to reconfigured to cover new viral variants than more conventional inoculations such as AstraZeneca’s, which is being made in Australia by CSL.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are manufactured overseas and a group of Australian scientists, spurred on by the rise of the variants, have been assembling a coalition of private companies to explore ways to start manufacturing them here.
“It is feasible. It’s just a matter of the will to make it happen,” said Professor Colin Pouton, a Monash University vaccine developer who is part of the team.
Before the pandemic, mRNA vaccines – which contain genetic code from a virus, rather than the virus itself – were a scientific novelty. But many scientists now believe they are the future of vaccines.
Professor Pouton and his team believe that with sufficient government support an mRNA vaccine production line could be up and running within months. Local laboratory equipment company ATA Scientific says the equipment can be imported and it is “absolutely possible” to build a facility.
There are many questions left to answer, and other scientists are sceptical such capacity could be brought online in the short term – but all agree that it is important for Australia to get into the mRNA game at some point.
“If we got started, and worked up that capability, there is no reason why we couldn’t be manufacturing one of these existing vaccines under licence. And that would really help the flow of [vaccine] doses to Australia,” Professor Pouton said.
Professor Pouton, who is also leading a federally-funded effort to build an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, has been in talks with Canadian vaccine infrastructure manufacturer Precision NanoSystems as well as ATA Scientific. Applications scientist at ATA Scientific, Peter Davis, said it was “absolutely possible” for Australia to set up mRNA vaccine manufacturing at scale. “It doesn’t require multi-billions of dollars to create a facility,” he said.
It’s not yet clear exactly what technology would be required to manufacture Pfizer or Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines under licence, but both companies have worked with Precision in the past, Mr Davis said.
He said technologies such as Precision’s were already available for import into Australia and could be used to develop a local manufacturing facility for RNA technologies. This could be for the production of COVID-19 vaccines and other emerging genetic medicines.
“This [is] an opportunity to create a genetic medicine facility in Australia which can create or pivot to vaccine production. Let’s make Australia the genetic medicine hub of the world.”
CI Professor Pall Thordarson, a member of the effort said it was “not a question of whether we can do it, but when”.
“We have all the expertise we need in this country. What is needed is the right investments and partnerships. We are working carefully to ensure that will happen. But there is no guarantee yet.”
CSL has been contracted by the government to make 50 million doses of AstraZeneca’s viral vector vaccine at the company’s Broadmeadows facility. CSL has said there is a “low likelihood” it could prepare its facilities in time to make mRNA vaccines under licence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The company has indicated it would consider investment in mRNA technologies in the future, however. It declined to comment on Wednesday.
Australia does not have local mRNA manufacturing facilities. A 2017 report prepared for the Defence Department warned our lack of vaccine infrastructure could leave us short in the event of a pandemic.
To achieve onshore production for existing vaccines, Australia would also have to reach an agreement with those companies.