Topics: COVID-19 vaccine agreement
Fran Kelly: Every single Australian will receive a free COVID vaccine under a deal struck with the British based drug company AstraZeneca. The Morrison Government says we will be among the first in the world to be inoculated against the COVID-19 virus, if Phase 3 trials show that the vaccine being developed by Oxford University is safe and effective. But details are still to be worked out over how the drug will be manufactured. Karen Andrews is the Federal Industry Minister. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.
Karen Andrews: Good morning Fran.
Fran Kelly: More work still needs to be done on the efficacy of the Oxford University vaccine, the stage three trials could run into next year. If they’re successful, when do you think we will get this vaccine here in Australia?
Karen Andrews: Look, realistically we need to be looking at the middle of next year, early next year is a best case scenario. Obviously, we’ll be doing all that we can to fast track this vaccine. But I think it’s important to get the context around vaccine development, which is normally, you’re looking at about 12 to 15 years. So, there is an enormous amount of effort being put into trying to get this vaccine as soon as possible. But the Phase 3 trials, which is where we’re heading into now, is where the vaccine is tested, about 30,000 to 50,000 people, and that’s a critical stage of the test. So, we will be very closely monitoring that with the Oxford vaccine, but also with other vaccines that are being developed.
Fran Kelly: The Government statement on this says the deal that’s signed with AstraZeneca will cover vaccine development, production and distribution, with a commitment to produce the vaccine locally. How will we produce it locally? Will CSL produce it?
Karen Andrews: CSL is probably the leading producer at the moment. We’re in very deep discussions with them, in terms of their capability and their capacity, so we have confidence in the capability of CSL to be able to produce the vaccine; they already do produce the flu vaccine. Depending on the vaccine that is ultimately the candidate that we proceed with, then there will be differences in the way that the vaccine is produced and what the requirements are. But we are trying to cover all bases at the moment, and we will talk to- continue talking to CSL, but I believe that they are well placed at the moment to be able to manufacture.
Fran Kelly: Okay. Well, CSL’s own statement on this says quote: we are assessing the viability of options, ranging from the fill and finish of bulk product imported to Australia, through to manufacture of the vaccine candidate under licence. There are a number of technical issues to work through and discussions ongoing. So, it seems like they’re not yet saying with confidence they can do it. Is it only- have we only done half the deal for this vaccine, does that mean?
Karen Andrews: No. And I’m exactly on the same page as CSL, because there is a lot more work that needs to be done – but they are well placed to be able to do that. Look, you know, as recently as last night I was talking to CSL and going through what the issues would be that we can work with them on. I’ve been talking to Larry Marshall the CEO of CSIRO, he’s working very closely with me and with others on what the production capacity is, and what we will need to do to make sure that we have the manufacturing facility here in Australia ready to go.
Fran Kelly: If CSL can’t do it – it’s already committed to the UQ vaccine too if that comes through – if it can’t do it, do we have any other capacity to produce a vaccine here? I know we’ve spoken recently, your shout out to other Australian manufacturers to step forward if they can be involved in vaccine production. Do we have that capacity anywhere beyond CSL, and if not, what happens if CSL can’t do it?
Karen Andrews: Yep. And they’re all very good questions, and they’re the ones that I’m asking myself now to make sure that we are as prepared as we possibly can. Because, yes, whilst CSL is best placed at the moment, we are certainly reaching as broadly as we can to other potential manufacturers here in Australia, which was one of the purposes behind the request for information that went out a week or so ago –
Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] So, do any other of those manufacturers have the capacity to produce a vaccine to the satisfaction of a company like AstraZeneca?
Karen Andrews: The issue is the scale up, which is what we’re working on at the moment. So, there is capacity to potentially produce in Australia, but at lower volumes, much lower volume than what we would need. So, my focus is now on how we would scale up that production, but that work is well underway, and I’m working very closely with CSIRO to make sure that we are focusing on the issues of scale.
Fran Kelly: And in terms of scale, this agreement involves the purchase of 25 million vaccines; that’s enough for pretty much everyone in Australia. How quickly would the Government pledge that all 25 million doses could be manufactured and rolled out?
Karen Andrews: Well, we’re working to make that happen as soon as we possibly can –
Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] What’s the timeframe we’re talking about?
Karen Andrews: Well, we’re in Phase 3 trials for the vaccine now, so we need to make sure that we’ve got a vaccine, but in parallel, we’re working out what our production capacity is. So, we’re not going to roll out a vaccine that hasn’t gone through all the appropriate processes –
Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] No, no, no, but once it is cleared, what’s the timeframe for Australia getting its hands on it, or producing it, and then rolling it out to the 25 million Australians?
Karen Andrews: In my view, the absolute best case scenario is very early next year. We will do everything that we can to bring that forward, but it relies very heavily on the testing of the drugs.
Fran Kelly: 25 million doses doesn’t allow us to help out others in our region, and I understand that is a commitment we’ve made. Will Australia procure enough vaccine for Pacific Island nations, for instance?
Karen Andrews: Well, we will look at what we can do to support our nearest neighbours, absolutely. And we’re working towards that, this is a step by step process, many of the parts we are doing in parallel. I’m very focused on the manufacturing parts of it, and we need to make sure that we can produce as many of those doses as possible here. Once we do that, we’re in a very good position to help others.
Fran Kelly: And just finally, Minister, the CSL statement says, again, as we know, that the vaccine candidate being developed by the University of Queensland remains CSL’s top priority. Why hasn’t our Federal Government invested more money in that UQ research? We’ve invested five million federally, the state governments 10 million, Labor says that’s woefully inadequate. Why don’t we go for broke and invest in that UQ research?
Karen Andrews: Well, we’ve taken a very broad brush approach, and we have invested quite a lot of money –
Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Well, five million.
Karen Andrews: Well yes, but we’ve also invested in CEPI; we’ve injected money into that. We’ve injected money into the CSIRO. This is not really a case of picking winners and where we’re going to put the money. We believe that the –
Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Isn’t this the time to pick winners? Isn’t that what every other nation’s doing, picking winners? Britain’s already producing the vaccine from – or getting ready to build- it’s built the factory.
Karen Andrews: Yep. Well, we’re progressing that, in terms of where we believe the best candidate is at the moment, and that’s with the Oxford University. But we’re also supporting the UQ, and we are putting money into that, and we are working with CSL in terms of the production of that. So, we’re not just backing one possible candidate, because let’s be very clear about this; there is a high failure rate for vaccines.
Fran Kelly: Sure.
Karen Andrews: And one or both of the leading candidates could well not proceed.
Fran Kelly: Minister, thank you very much for joining us again on Breakfast.
Karen Andrews: It’s a pleasure. Take care Fran.