Will Australian mRNA vaccine production help?

The federal government wants companies to produce mRNA vaccines in Australia. Picture: Shutterstock
The federal government wants companies to produce mRNA vaccines in Australia. Picture: Shutterstock

The federal government has called on pharmaceutical companies to come forward with plans to produce more vaccine in Australia.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is already made in Melbourne but Pfizer and Moderna are imported.

These last two are mRNA vaccines, and that's the type the government now wants manufactured in Australia.

Some basics: mRNA stands for messenger ribonucleic acid (don't ask). It is a particular type of RNA vaccine.

What's the difference between mRNA and conventional vaccines?

Conventional vaccines like the one produced by AstraZeneca are modified versions of the actual virus we want protection from.

It's a bit like giving a mild and harmless dose of the disease to a person whose body then fights it and builds up the antibodies.

But an RNA vaccine works in a different way. This type of vaccine instructs the body to make certain substances which then train our immune system to spot the virus and make antibodies to attack it.

Whatever the science, the important point is that they do the same thing - protect our bodies from a virus - but by different methods.

Why we need domestic production of mRNA vaccine

Pros and cons

"RNA vaccines are faster and cheaper to produce than traditional vaccines, and a RNA-based vaccine is also safer for the patient, as they are not produced using infectious elements," according to the PHG Foundation at Cambridge University in the UK.

They are also easier to adapt to new variants of the coronavirus. Their production can be ramped up more easily than that of conventional vaccines which have to be grown and which need substantial production plants (very clean factories).

"A major advantage of RNA vaccines is that RNA can be produced in the laboratory from a DNA template using readily available materials, less expensively and faster than conventional vaccine production, which can require the use of chicken eggs or other mammalian cells," according to the Cambridge University foundation.

The downside is they are much more expensive than the conventional vaccines and they have to be stored at very low temperatures which may make their distribution across Australia harder - but the government's policy is to use a raft of vaccines and not to plump for one type. Different vaccines might suit different age groups better.

Why manufacture in Australia?

Making the vaccine in Australia would still be cheaper than importing it. It would also give the government more control over supply.

Archa Fox of the University of Western Australia reckons immunising the whole Australian population would cost about $1 billion if the vaccine is imported.

Domestic production would cut that cost to one-tenth. "As a rough estimate, we calculate it could cost as little as $100 million to make sufficient vaccine domestically. But it will mean a significant lag time, perhaps twelve months, to set up the infrastructure and train staff," she says.

She says a year is a conservative estimate. A plant in Germany was adapted in three months.

The constraint is not so much the building but the specialist lab 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," she says.

Who might do it?

That's what the government wants to find out.

It put out a similar request for companies to show interest last year. The fact it is repeating its call might indicate the response before wasn't sufficient.

On August 11, the minister for industry, science and technology at the time, Karen Andrews, said: "This request for information is about identifying more niche manufacturers, including those who may be able to pivot or have the capability but would need support to scale up their operations.

"This is not a request for tender, but a request to manufacturers to tell us what they can do."

This time, one international biotech company with a base in South Australia has tentatively put its hand up. BioCina bought Pfizer's old manufacturing plant at Thebarton in Adelaide last year. Its chief executive said this month the plant was capable of developing ingredients for coronavirus vaccines.

"We already have a really good facility in Thebarton that is commercially approved to manufacture microbial products," Ian Wisenberg told local radio.

"The part that we need to still establish is the ability to be self-sufficient in the starting materials."

Would it bring 'normality' closer?

Sadly, it won't.

"Our ability to manufacture mRNA vaccines will be unlikely to change the timeline for vaccine rollout, as it will probably take at least 12 months before any new plant can produce the mRNA vaccines," Professor Adrian Esterman of the University of South Australia told this paper.

"What it will do is make us independent and not having to rely on overseas manufacturers. mRNA vaccines are also very easy to tweak to cover new variants of the SARS-CoV-2, so will be incredibly useful into the future for booster shots.

"The mRNA vaccine technology is also increasingly being used in cancer treatment.

"Finally, the ability to manufacture our own mRNA vaccines will be brilliant when the next pandemic comes.

"This is a good, if belated, investment by the federal government."

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This story Will Australian mRNA vaccine production help? first appeared on The Canberra Times.