Experts and investors have been urging the government and CSL to develop a blueprint for producing vaccines using the new ‘mRNA’ genetic technology in Australia. US biotech giant Pfizer’s COVID-19 product, which claims a higher efficacy rate than AstraZeneca’s and is being rolled out in the US and UK, is the first mRNA product to be released. Moderna’s product is also based on mRNA.
“Could you open up mRNA manufacturing, not just for vaccines but for other products? I would like to see CSL think hard about that,” Bianca Ogden, a healthcare portfolio manager at Platinum Asset Management said.
Any further doses of the Pfizer vaccine must be imported, with CSL confirming at the end of 2020 it was highly unlikely that the company could set up production capabilities for mRNA vaccines in the required timeframe.
“I would judge there is a very low likelihood we would be able to do this in any timeframe that would be relevant to the pandemic,” Dr Russell Basser, senior vice president of research and development at CSL’s vaccine arm Seqirus said in December.
However, CSL has told this masthead it is open to investing in new technologies like mRNA in future, depending on future technology trends.
AstraZeneca is the most transportable of the vaccines, it can be the next rung down and do that mass populus of Australia.
Wilson Asset Management’s John Ayoub
Wilson Asset Management portfolio manager John Ayoub said the government had taken a diversified approach to vaccine orders so far, and the AstraZeneca vaccine beign made by CSL still had a role to play.
“The government has embarked upon a multifaceted approach for the Australian population, including using Pfizer for frontline and at-risk Australians. AstraZeneca is the most transportable of the vaccines, it can be the next rung down and do that mass populus of Australia,” he said.
Pengana Australian equities fund manager Rhett Kessler said even if there did end up being delays to the vaccine rollout in Australia, it was unlikely to have a significant impact on the economy.
“Given the remarkably low prevalence of infections in Australia, it is difficult to see how a delay of several months would have a material fundamental impact on the domestic economy,” he said.
Last week, CSL confirmed production of the 50 million doses was well underway, with the first batches of the active drug ingredient now complete and undergoing extensive testing.
The company has retooled its vaccine facilities over the past six months to enable the production of doses. CSL’s vaccine arm Seqirus has moved to 24/7 scheduling, and the production of this year’s flu vaccine and antivenom doses has been accelerated to clear the path for the AstraZeneca product to be made.
The 50 million AstraZeneca doses that CSL plans to produce this year will be in addition to 3.8 million doses of the vaccine which will be imported.
Australia is also importing 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 51 million doses of the vaccine from US biotechnology company Novavax, should that product be successful.
The Novavax vaccine will not be available until mid to late 2021, however, with phase 3 clinical trials of the product having started just three weeks ago in the US and Mexico.
Emma reports on healthcare companies for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. She is based in Melbourne.