It could take as little as three months for Australia to begin local production of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer, according to Associate Professor Archa Fox, from The University of Western Australia’s School of Human Sciences and School of Molecular Sciences.
Associate Professor Fox, who is also RnA Network of Australasia president, said the estimate was based on the precedent of a factory that was repurposed in Germany, where they had a three-month turnaround.
“This was an undertaking that was done byPfizer/BioNTech to make a factory that could make from one billion doses of mRNA vaccine a year,” she said.
“We do not need to make that many doses here in Australia and that, in Germany, required a huge investment.
“The shopping list for making these mRNA vaccines is essentially money to buy the equipment. The floor space for this technology is not actually that big because it is built on a pod concept where there are container-sized pods that are clean rooms that contain the equipment."Associate Professor Archa Fox
“So being more conservative, we are predicting a 12-month turnaround for Australia, if we had sufficient investment in equipment and to train the personnel to manufacture this type of vaccine.
“The shopping list for making these mRNA vaccines is essentially money to buy the equipment. The floor space for this technology is not actually that big because it is built on a pod concept where there are container-sized pods that are clean rooms that contain the equipment.
“As the factory scales up, more of these pods can be purchased and put under one roof. There are vendors who can supply the pods and we already have a lot of staff in Australia who are very skilled at the compliance quality framework.
“It really is just a matter of investment at this point”.
Associate Professor Fox said the mRNA vaccine technology had proven itself, in this COVID crisis, to be the quickest vaccine to design and, once set up, the most adaptable to COVID variants.
“We need this here, in Australia, so that we can design against future variants,” she said. “And beyond COVID, for future pandemic preparedness, we need to be able to quickly ramp up and design vaccines for whatever emerges.
“But even beyond viruses, there is so much scope for this technology. In fact, it was originally set up to deal with cancer and that is a huge clinical problem, as we all know, and there is a lot of exciting potential for having cancer immunotherapy based on the vaccine technology.
“So for all these reasons, we think it is something we need to have here in Australia.”
Q and A - with Associate Professor Archa Fox.
Why are COVID-19 mRNA vaccines the best choice for Australia?
mRNA vaccines are quick to design, once a viral genome sequence is known, with flexible technology for vaccine manufacturing. That’s why we have seen that this type of vaccine against COVID-19, from Pfizer and Moderna, were the first to be approved for clinical use. They are also the most effective at protecting against severe disease of all the COVID vaccines currently on offer.
Why do we need to make them locally here in Australia?
We are seeing a huge global demand for mRNA vaccines. While other countries around the world are struggling with the third wave of the pandemic, we are in the fortunate position that we do not have many COVID cases but nevertheless if we want to get back to “business as usual” we do need to get vaccinated. The Pfizer vaccine, which is a mRNA vaccine, has now been recommended for people under 50 but we are pretty much at the back of the queue for the global supply of this vaccine. If we could make these vaccines here, we would be able to vaccinate our population more quickly.
What has been your role in advocating for the local production of mRNA vaccines in Australia?
As president of the RnA Network of Australasia, I recognised early on that this technology needed to be utilised and manufactured in Australia, so I used my contacts within my network and together, with academics in Australia who are already developing RNA vaccines against COVID, we formed a group that had a vision for how RNA technology could be implemented within Australia’s biotech space. We have been lobbying different levels of government, companies and speaking to various research organisations to try and find any way we can to get this manufacturing technology off the ground here in Australia. Our lobbying of the Victorian Government recently contributed to $50 million being invested.
Regarding vaccine hesitancy, do you think there is now more support among Australians for the mRNA vaccines?
Back when the approval for the Pfizer vaccine came out, there were people concerned about conspiracy theories that were circulating about mRNA technology but fortunately a lot of that seems to have fallen away. People are more concerned about the blood clot risk with other technologies.