The Commonwealth has opted to partner with US pharma giant Moderna and the Victorian government to establish Australia’s local mRNA vaccine manufacturing capability after nearly a year of deliberations.
The facility won’t be in operation until at least 2024, and the funding behind it will be kept secret.
It comes after a protracted, year-long deliberation by the Commonwealth about how best to approach a local mRNA vaccine manufacturing capability which saw several states vying for the deal.
The Commonwealth has paid US consulting firm McKinsey nearly $7 million this year to provide advice on mRNA vaccine manufacturing.
Australian pharma company CSL had also applied for the Commonwealth funding but was unsuccessful, and may now establish an mRNA manufacturing facility outside of the country.
Victoria has come out on top, with Modern signing an in-principle deal to establish manufacturing and finishing facilities, along with a research centre, in the state.
All three parties will be providing funding to the new capability, with the deal understood to be worth at least $2 billion. The federal government has declined to reveal how much the deal is worth, saying this is commercial in confidence. It also did not disclose how much money was set aside for mRNA manufacturing in this year’s budget.
Once operational, it will make Victoria the first place in the southern hemisphere to manufacture mRNA vaccines, primarily for the seasonal flu rather than COVID-19.
The manufacturing facility will eventually be able to produce 25 million doses per year by 2024, the government said, but this number could be scaled up to 100 million per year in the event of another pandemic.
While the industry department approached the market for an end-to-end blueprint for mRNA manufacturing earlier this year, it has been in discussions with Moderna for the US giant to establish an Australian base in parallel to this, and eventually opted for this strategy in partnership with the Victorian government.
Acting Victorian Premier James Merlino heralded the announcement as a significant moment for the state.
“This is a huge announcement not just for Victoria, but the whole country – being able to manufacture mRNA vaccines and treatments locally will lock in vaccine security both on our shores and across our region,” Mr Merlino said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the deal on Tuesday morning, mistakenly saying that the facility will be able to produce 100,000 doses per year, rather than 100 million.
“This investment will continue to secure Australia’s future economic prosperity while protecting lives by providing access to world-leading mRNA vaccines made on Australian soil,” Mr Morrison said.
“The new mRNA manufacturing facility in Victoria will produce respiratory vaccines for potential future pandemics and seasonal health issues such as the common flu, protecting lives and livelihoods.”
The Victorian government and Moderna are currently in discussions to determine where in the state the manufacturing facility will be established.
Victorian innovation minister Jaala Pulford said it was a “very, very significant moment in the history of medical research”.
“Having Moderna pitching tent here is so important to us, it’s something we’re incredibly proud of and something we value deeply. We’re excited about that sovereign capability and about the research partnerships that will flow from this into things like diseases that affect parts of our region and into the new and emerging therapeutics for things like cancers and other rare diseases,” Ms Pulford told the media on Tuesday.
Several other states, led by New South Wales and South Australia, have been lobbying heavily to have the facility based locally. The NSW government has already committed $96 million for a facility in partnership with a number of universities, while Victoria pledged $50 million for mRNA vaccines before this week’s announcement.
While the facility will be based in Victoria, it won’t be homegrown pharma giant CSL leading it, despite the company applying for Commonwealth funding.
CSL had proposed to the federal government to establish onshore mRNA development and manufacturing, but was not selected. CSL is already manufacturing the AstraZeneca vaccine, and is working on a self-amplifying mRNA (sa-mRNA) vaccine.
Following the government’s announcement, CSL chair Dr Brian McNamme said the company is committed to developing mRNA vaccines, but this now might not be in Australia.
“We are firmly committed to advancing our next-generation sa-mRNA vaccine technology which aims to address some of the challenges presented by the current technology,” Dr McNamee said.
CSL will be using research facilities in Cambridge and clinical scale manufacturing facilities in North Carolina for its mRNA work, and pointed to a recent deal with the US Department of Health on its flu vaccines.
“The company will continue to consider options for an industrial-scale mRNA vaccine manufacturing facility and determine where it is most compatible within our global network,” Dr McNamee said.
The federal Opposition has previously accused the Coalition of “kicking the can down the road” on mRNA vaccines following delays to the plan.
Former industry minister Karen Andrews said in October last year that it will be 9-12 months until manufacturing is up and running. But the plan announced on Tuesday sets this date two years later.
“We’ve had announcement after announcement, consultant bill after consultant bill and little sign that local mRNA manufacture would happen in the timeframe they announced in October 2020,” shadow industry minister Ed Husic told InnovationAus.
Mr Morrison hit back at questions regarding this timeframe at a press conference on Tuesday, denying that Ms Andrews had promised to have a manufacturing facility running by the end of 2021.
“We’ve spent the time to get it right – this is not an arrangement that you just rush into and do a deal in a coffee shop somewhere,” Mr Morrison said.
“We worked with a number of states and we came to the very sensible conclusion that here in Victoria we have the strong foundation to continue to build.”
Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.