Since the first known case of COVID-19 in Australia was detected in January 2020, the country has gone through a number of lockdowns and other preventative measures such as border closures to control the virus.
Without mass vaccination, a return to normality is improbable. A number of promising vaccines are already under production, but how is Australia accessing these and what is the plan for deployment?
What goes into manufacturing vaccines?
While traditionally vaccines can take as long as 15 years to develop, vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) are following an accelerated time frame.
Their development has been enabled by nucleic acid vaccines, which include base modified mRNA and self-amplifying mRNA. Historically, many vaccines have been produced by cultivating attenuated forms of the virus in mammalian cells or chicken eggs. The virus is then collected, adapted to grow in labs, and then shipped around the world for delivery. This process can take months.
With mRNA, the delivery system involves particles obtained from viruses, and scientists can synthesise the DNA from electronic sequences that can be instantly shared across the internet. With this type of production method, experimental batches can be made within a week. Both methods involve the use of other ingredients like buffers, adjuvants, stabilizers, and preservatives before vials are filled and packed for distribution.
What is mRNA?
mRNA stands for messenger RNA, a type of genetic material that also functions as a messenger between genes and the rest of the cell. In terms of vaccines it’s a newer type of vaccine technology that triggers an immune response in a different way. This type of vaccine does not utilise the actual virus that leads to a COVID-19 infection. Instead, it relies on the pathogen’s genetic code.
They have an advantage over traditional vaccines because they’re synthetic and can be tested and produced at scale quickly without needing to produce large quantities of the virus in living cells like chicken eggs or cell cultures. Older vaccine technology uses weakened or inactivated germs, but mRNA vaccines differ by teaching cells to create innocuous proteins known as spike proteins. This protein type is found on the surface of viruses like COVID-19.
The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines in development are injected into upper arm muscle tissue. The body’s immune cells then draw upon the mRNA (the “instructions”) to create viral protein pieces before breaking down the injected mRNA in the vaccine shot and eliminating it. Following this, these cells will display these viral protein pieces on their
surfaces. In response, the body’s immune system detects these proteins as foreign and so creates the antibodies that enable protection against future exposure to COVID-19. mRNA is advantageous when it comes to mutating viruses because small sequence changes can be made quickly.
Why is Australia behind in the vaccine production race?
Australia is a laggard in the COVID-19 vaccine race because there is a lack of local manufacturing facilities and technological capacity. However, it has agreements to obtain vaccines from overseas producers. Currently, six mRNA vaccines are at the clinical trial stage, including mRNA-1273 by Moderna in the US and BNT162 by Pfizer and BioNtech in Germany. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is another high-profile vaccine candidate but it is not based on mRNA technology.
So far Australia has secured 150 million doses, which includes 20 million of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, 53.8 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and 51 million of the Novavax vaccine (which is also not a mRNA vaccine). The figure also includes 25.5 million units under the COVAX International Facility agreement, which is a WHO initiative to provide rapid and equitable vaccine access to all countries.
As a COVAX member, Australia will be able to buy, distribute, or licence for local manufacturing the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. However, Australia could be said to be at the end of a long queue given the US, the EU, Japan, and other countries have already pre-purchased hundreds of millions of doses of the Pfizer and other vaccines.
What can Australia do to catch up?
Australia has already taken steps to secure a significant number of doses once they are available. Further, the government will be providing the vaccine for free for everyone living in Australia.
To catch up, Australia needs to continue securing agreements to buy doses from overseas pharmaceutical companies. It could also consider setting up local production facilities
capable of producing mRNA vaccines. This may require strong government and private sector cooperation for vaccine innovation.
The effort could be well worth it for not only tackling COVID-19 and its mutations but also for ensuring Australia is well placed to address future pandemics, diseases like cancer, and genetic conditions.
The cost savings could be considerable as well, as it could cost as little as $100 million to produce vaccines for everyone locally compared with $1 billion to buy and deliver vaccines from overseas producers. Even so, achieving sovereign capacity could require a lag time of 12 months or more to train people and build the infrastructure.
What is the short-term and long-term view?
The Australian company CSL is producing the AstraZeneca vaccine and the first vials should be available by early March. Border workers, frontline healthcare staff, emergency department personnel, quarantine workers, and those working and living in residential and aged care will be prioritised before the rest of the population. At least 60% to 70% of the population will need to be vaccinated before efficacy of the vaccines can be determined.
In the longer term, it seems COVID-19 is here to stay and how it will play out depends on unknowns like mutations and how quickly Australia can access modified vaccines to address these. The long-term scenario will also be contingent on whether these vaccines confer lasting immunity or frequent booster shots and updates are needed.
COVID-19 is probably here to stay and a return to something resembling the pre-COVID-19 era will depend on vaccine efficacy and mass vaccination.
As a nation, Australia will need to continue securing supplies from overseas manufacturers while building up local research and manufacturing capacity. Once a
sufficient percentage of the population has been vaccinated, the government and the relevant industries should be ready to respond quickly to the data, whether it suggests the need to ramp up local production and/or secure further supplies from overseas.