Topics: COVID-19 vaccine, science jobs
Fran Kelly: The Russian Government’s fast-tracked approval of a COVID-19 vaccine certainly raised eyebrows around the world, but the race is on to find a vaccine and then roll it out. And here in Australia, the Federal Government this week called on Australian companies with the capacity to manufacture a coronavirus vaccine and treatments to step forward.
The Government’s hopeful a vaccine being developed by the University of Queensland will prove successful. But there’s growing concern that we’ve yet to secure a deal to access any of the 200 or so international vaccine candidates.
Karen Andrews is the Federal Science and Industry Minister. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.
Karen Andrews: Good morning, Fran. It’s good to be back.
Fran Kelly: This week, Minister, you put the call out to Australian manufacturers who can produce vaccines to show themselves. Is this an SOS, an acknowledgement that we don’t have the capacity we need to produce enough vaccine for Australians once it’s found?
Karen Andrews: Not at all. So we’ve been working for a couple of months now with manufacturers that we have in Australia that either have the capacity now or have the potential to ramp up. This is another stage of what we need to do which is looking for other parts of the manufacturing process.
So we’ve put forward the glass vials, we’ve put forward needles, we’re looking at what the packaging is going to be. But that work is already well underway. What we found from when we were doing the search for PPE is, yes, we can identify where our capacity was but when we went out for a request for information, we actually drew additional companies that we hadn’t considered because they were producing in the areas we wanted, but they could pivot their manufacturing. And that’s what we’re doing now with the request for information. So it is to supplement the work we’re already doing.
Fran Kelly: Okay. And it was my understanding from the Health Department before that the Government is assured that CSL has the capacity to produce sufficient vaccine for the entire population, either for an Australian based vaccine or under licence for other leading international vaccines. Is that correct? We do have enough capacity through CSL to actually produce enough of the vaccine. This is just about sort of getting into doses or something.
Karen Andrews: Well it depends on what the vaccine is and there are many candidates that are being tested around the world; some are being tested here in Australia. So we don’t know what the final form of the vaccine is going to be. Certainly, CSL has got significant capacity. They already manufacture vaccines for the flu here in Australia. So they have significant capacity. We’re working very closely with them.
But depending on what the final form of the vaccine is and the way that needs to be produced, we’re also keen to look at other manufacturers that we have in Australia, look at what their capacity is and of course, we’ve brought CSIRO into the search as well. They’re working very closely with CSL and others to make sure that we can ramp up the manufacturing capacity that we need.
Fran Kelly: Now, I might be wrong here, Minister, but I think that in this call out, you’ve given local companies who can pivot to, you know, some kind of vaccine production or the vials, a week to step forward. Why such a tight deadline? Is an international vaccine deal dependent on our manufacturing capacity?
Karen Andrews: Well it’s not a request for tender. This is a request for information. So those companies that have the potential to pivot, quite frankly, are already looking in this area. So we have gone out very broadly and yes, it is a quick turnaround.
Fran Kelly: [Talks over] Why?
Karen Andrews: But we will always be – because we need to make sure that we are in the best possible position to look at the extra capacity that we may well need. And our priority is really working with CSL at this point in time because they do have capacity. This will be to supplement and to look at what our capacity is in the event that there’s a different form of vaccine that comes through.
Fran Kelly: Well the priority of course is to make sure we get a vaccine first and the University of Queensland is working on one but there’s no guarantees. So it may be very well likely that we want to tap into vaccines developed overseas.
Yesterday, we were speaking with the Shadow Health Minister Chris Bowen on the program about the need to secure access to some of these international contenders. Let’s have a listen.
Chris Bowen: There are 20 such agreements around the world already. I mean the US has signed six and the UK signed three and Brazil over the last 48 hours has signed one. South Korea has one, Japan has three, the European Union has two, Australia has zero. I mean and again, these were first penned in May, mid-May quite early in this crisis. We’re now at mid-August and frankly, the government, I have to- I’m sorry to say, has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to vaccines.
[End of excerpt]
Fran Kelly: Minister, what’s your response to that? We’re not even in the queue yet. Brazil is and we’re not. Why?
Karen Andrews: Look, I’m not interested in a headline. I’m actually interested in an outcome and we have been very clear on the work that we’ve been doing. We are well advanced in negotiations to look at what we can do internationally, what we can do with researchers here in Australia and agreement is only one part of it. And what we learned from PPE, is just because you have an agreement, doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to get that product delivered. It’s very important …
Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] No. But if you don’t have agreement, you definitely won’t get that product. I mean you’re in negotiations but negotiations are not an agreement. And as Chris Bowen was laying out there, other countries actually have purchasing agreements with vaccine contenders. Why don’t we?
Karen Andrews: They may well have purchasing agreements for vaccines that have not yet been proven and we have been very strategic in our approach. There is a high failure rate for vaccine candidates.
Fran Kelly: Yes.
Karen Andrews: There are vaccines now that are being promoted elsewhere in the world that have not had phase three trials which means that they have only been tested in a very small population; around about 300 to 500 is where phase two trials normally are.
So we’re not prepared to do that. We are going to continue to take a sensible, well considered approach in the best interests of the people of Australia. We will look at our capacity to manufacture in Australia, we are working very hard with our research development. We have committed over $300 million already. We will continue to work with Oxford University, with the University of Queensland. We will continue to look at opportunities to engage internationally, which we’re already doing with our research organisations.
Fran Kelly: Sure. But we just don’t want to be stuck way down the queue when a vaccine comes through. I mean you mentioned Oxford University, it’s a hotly anticipated vaccine. It is currently undertaking stage three human trials; production’s due to begin in the UK next month. They’ve already got orders for that vaccine for 400 million doses around the world. We don’t have an order in yet with them, do we? How close is Australia to an agreement?
Karen Andrews: We’re close. We are working very closely with a number of different organisations. But we want to make sure that we are putting our money into vaccine candidates that have a high potential to be successful because there is such a high risk and I am not prepared to put taxpayers’ money into a scattergun approach, cross my fingers and hope …
Fran Kelly: Of course not. Of course not. No one would expect the Australian Science Minister to do that. But you know, it is a risk. No one knows whether the UQ one or the Oxford one; they could all come to naught, we don’t know. But you don’t want to be caught napping; this is a race. I mean sadly, the way the international community seems to be working at the moment, you know, it’s- you know, every man from themselves, so to speak …
Karen Andrews: [Talks over] Absolutely.
Fran Kelly: So when is Australia going to put some money and sign a contract with one- you know, will we be doing that before we’ve- it’s proven to be successful?
Karen Andrews: Well we are working through that process now. I can assure you that the Federal Government is doing all that it possibly can at this point in time. We have committed money to vaccine development. We are working with CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, we are working through CSIRO, we’re looking at our manufacturing capacity here, we’re looking at what’s happening internationally.
So we have got every base that we can covered. We will not let the Australian people down. I can assure you of that.
Fran Kelly: Minister, can I just ask you finally? It’s a pretty extraordinary time for many of the nation’s scientists and they are doing incredible work and working around the clock and we thank them all. But a new survey has found that a quarter of Australia’s scientists have struggled to carry out their work due to anxiety and mental stress during this pandemic and one in 10 has seen a drop in their paid work hours. Does that concern you? Have you seen the survey? Are you planning to do anything about it?
Karen Andrews: Look, I am concerned at the impact that this pandemic has had across all parts of industry. I am, of course, particularly concerned about our science community. I’m well and truly on the record as saying that science and technology and industry will be what leads us through this pandemic. So yes, I am very concerned about impacts on our scientific community. I have a lot of confidence in CSIRO. I speak to them almost daily now about issues surrounding science and technology. We are working to make sure that we are able to support our scientists in the best possible way …
Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Why would one in 10 of our scientists have seen a drop in their paid work hours at a time like this?
Karen Andrews: I think across Australia, many individuals have been affected by the COVID crisis. We are acutely aware of that and as a Government we have put an enormous amount of money into supporting businesses and to supporting individuals in these very difficult times.
Fran Kelly: Okay.
Karen Andrews: So we’re certainly aware of what’s happening broadly across industry and we do want to support industry as best we can. And quite frankly, we actually have to start working out how we’re going to live in the COVID environment because we are facing months of this.
Fran Kelly: Okay. Alright. And I think our universities would be saying that they’re the home of science and perhaps they need some more support. But that’s an interview for another day. Minister, thank you very much for joining us.
Karen Andrews: It’s a pleasure. Take care.
Fran Kelly: Karen Andrews is the Science and Industry Minister.