Leading Australian scientists have called on the federal government to urgently develop additional onshore Covid vaccine manufacturing capability to protect against supply disruption as the country completes its second day of vaccinations.
In a pre-budget submission published on Tuesday, the Australian Academy of Science said without the ability to produce mRNA vaccines, Australia and the region remain vulnerable to supply limitations.
“The previous 18 months have presented extraordinary and devastating challenges to Australia, from bushfires to the Covid-19 pandemic,” the submission says.
“As the country looks to the year ahead, two things are certain: that science is at the heart of every viable path forward, and that these devastating events that have previously been described as ‘once-in-a-century’ will become more frequent and more severe.”
The Academy said science and technology “continue to offer the only exit strategy from the pandemic for Australia and the world”.
“However, defects in Australia’s unsustainable approach to funding and organising research and development have been exposed … there are developing gaps in our ability to produce vaccines onshore,” the submission says. “Without the ability to produce new vaccines onshore, Australia and the region remain vulnerable to supply shocks.”
Because mRNA vaccines are a newer technology, Australia does not have a manufacturing plant to produce them. However there have been developments in the technology in recent years, and now that a vaccine using that technology has been successful, there is potential for mRNA vaccines to become more common, or for the technology to be used for other diseases.
Biotech firm CSL, located in Victoria, can make the more traditional protein-based vaccines, and is producing the AstraZeneca vaccine, but does not have the technology to manufacture mRNA vaccines. Australia is relying entirely on overseas supply.
The mRNA-based vaccine gives human cells instructions for how to make a protein unique to Covid-19. The protein is harmless, but the body recognises it should not be there and begins to build an immune response. If infected with the real virus, the body will know how to attack. They are less costly to produce and more potent than protein vaccines, as well as safe.
The Academy also called on the government to undertake a comprehensive review of the Australian system of research funding to better support the scientists most heavily relied on.
The rollout of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine for the most vulnerable people – including hotel quarantine staff and infectious diseases and emergency health staff – is occurring at hospital sites as well as aged care and disability homes. On Tuesday, the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, said supply of the Pfizer vaccine was “strong”.
“A second shipment of the Pfizer vaccine has arrived in Australia,” he said. “This week, 166,000 doses have arrived. Next week it will be approximately 120,000 doses. It’s important that we have consistency … and making sure that we have contingency if at any stage there were an issue with the supply chain. I have to say, the consistency of supply has been strong and heartening.”
But the Australian Medical Association president, Dr Omar Khorshid, said he agreed with the Australian Academy of Science that in order to secure the supply chain, increased onshore manufacturing was needed.
The federal government is carrying out a manufacturing audit to find out what facilities in Australia could be used to make large amounts of Covid-19 vaccine and treatments. The audit is examining more than 60 responses to identify companies that can produce Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.
“I think this Pfizer mRNA technology, which has been talked about for a long time, is suddenly real whereas one year ago when Australia was looking at its strategy and working out what to do, the technology didn’t seem as realistic a prospect,” Khorshid said.
“It was all theoretical as there had never been an mRNA vaccine before. But now having seen the success of it and the potential for it to be used for influenza vaccines or possibly even vaccines against cancers, I think there’s a really strong argument for Australia to develop that capability to manufacture onshore.
“We need our own onshore medicines manufacturing capability not just to protect us from vaccine supply issues but also from vulnerability to shortages of all sorts of essential medications.”