Australia

Companies line up to make mRNA vaccines in Australia as Albanese fends off timeframe jab

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A dozen applications to build labs making messenger RNA vaccines in Australia are being considered by the federal government as it prepares to ramp up the coronavirus immunisation program with the arrival of 1 million Pfizer doses a week from Monday.

The government’s approach-to-market for onshore mRNA manufacturing closed on Friday with the expectation it would take one to three years to produce vaccines under most of the proposals from businesses.

The government is considering submissions from companies including CSL and BioCina to manufacture mRNA vaccines in Australia.Credit:AP

Labor leader Anthony Albanese came under scrutiny over his understanding of this timeframe after he said Australia shouldn’t reopen globally until four criteria were met including domestic mRNA vaccine manufacturing.

“When you achieve those things you’ll be able to participate in global activity,” he said, also pointing to an effective vaccine rollout, a national system of purpose-built quarantine and better information campaigns.

But pushed on whether that meant Australia should stay closed to the rest of the world for another 18 months, Mr Albanese said the question had verballed him.

“What you need to do is to have more progress than is there now,” he said. “The manufacture of mRNA vaccines, obviously, takes time. There’s been no advancement, there’s no deal to advance that whatsoever.”

He later clarified to this masthead that reopening should not be conditional on local mRNA manufacturing.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he didn’t think Australians would welcome any plan that involved keeping the country closed until 2023.

“It is either an absurd plan or he doesn’t understand how long it takes to implement that element of what he is talking about,” he said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on FridayCredit:Janie Barrett

The government hasn’t outlined a concrete timetable for opening up, although its budget was based on the assumption international travel would resume in mid-2022. National cabinet’s latest reopening plan has four phases triggered by the proportion of the population vaccinated. Thursday was another record day for vaccinations, with 175,002 doses administered.

Industry Minister Christian Porter has said estimates of how long it will take to set up mRNA manufacturing range from six months to three years but the shorter timeframes are “exceedingly optimistic” and the most likely scenario is 12 to 18 months.

The new technology is used in Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines and has the potential for a wide range of medical applications.

The government’s approach-to-market is in addition to its negotiations with Moderna to establish a manufacturing facility in Australia for its product. Based on deals the company has done with other countries including Singapore, the earliest this would likely be up and running is 2023.

Mr Porter said on Friday he had received “detailed and extensive” submissions from a range of consortia and businesses including CSL, which is currently making AstraZeneca vaccines in Australia using a different technology, and South Australian-based BioCina.

“There has been strong interest from industry in partnership with research and government partners to work with the Commonwealth government to establish mRNA manufacturing in Australia,” he said.

Pharmacists in metropolitan hotspots will be recruited to deliver jabs from next week, as reported in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on Friday. The government expects a significant increase in the availability of Pfizer, with 1 million doses a week arriving from Monday.

National cabinet is working on ways to boost vaccination rates on weekends, with delivery needing to ramp up as more doses arrive in the country.

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Katina Curtis is a political reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra.

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