‘Tremendous failure’: Labor on local RAT manufacturing

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The Opposition says government missed a significant opportunity to rebuild Australian manufacturing around vaccines and rapid antigen tests, labelling the Coalition’s flagship $1.2 billion Modern Manufacturing Fund a “complete failure” on the issue.

Labor Senators zeroed in on the lack of locally-made rapid antigen tests (RATs) and the fact that Australian companies are manufacturing them locally but exported them around the world at a Senate Estimates hearing on Thursday afternoon.

They also criticised the government’s delays in setting up an onshore mRNA vaccine manufacturing facility, which is now not expected to be established until 2024.

Labor Senator Jess Walsh said it is a “tremendous failure” that Australians are still not able to purchase Australian-made RATs.

A COVID-19 rapid antigen test

Industry department officials confirmed there had been discussions with Australian companies looking to manufacture RATs in late 2020, as part of the Modern Manufacturing Fund, which was launched in the same year.

But the federal government has still not directly supported an Australian RAT manufacturing company or facility, and only one Australia RAT producers has received Therapeutic Goods Administration approval so far.

“It’s a tremendous lost opportunity to use this crisis to rebuild Australian manufacturing given that you launched the strategy at the very same time people were coming to you saying ‘we can make these things here if you work with us’,” Senator Walsh said.

“You’ve claimed you would’ve needed hindsight…but industry came to you in late 2020 and said this is going to happen, we’re going to need this, we can make them here and you sent them away. If the government had acted in 2020, the TGA timeframe would’ve been less of an issue than it is now.”

Liberal Senator Zed Seselja said the government could not have predicted the Omicron wave of Covid-19, and it has since secured 78 million rapid tests.

“You’re suggesting that you could foresee what we saw with Omicron and how much that changed the need for different types of testing. The government has focused on getting access to as many rapid antigen tests as we can,” Senator Seselja said.

“You are applying perfect 20/20 hindsight. I don’t recall you saying at that time the urgent priority was to develop that capacity.”

Labor Senator Murray Watt labelled the current situation around RAT manufacturing as “absurd”.

“It’s an absurd situation that it’s easier to get an Australian-made rapid antigen test in the US than it is in Australia. That is just absurd,” Senator Watt said.

“My suggestion is that perhaps when other countries around the world were manufacturing rapid antigen tests for at least a year before Omicron came along and when numerous Australian manufacturers were pleading with your government to work with them to get Australian-made rapid antigen tests, maybe you could have listened. Why didn’t you listen?”

This was rejected by Senator Seselja, who said Labor was trying to make a “political point” that he did not accept.

The federal government has spent about $100 million on acquiring RATs this year, with this going to the Australian sponsors of overseas-made tests, which are then imported and distributed by the Health department.

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