A coronavirus vaccine could be rolled out across Australia by the end of 2020 as the federal government says it has locked in a deal for one of the world’s most promising candidates.
Every Australian would be able to get a coronavirus jab for free if the federal government ends up securing a deal for the Oxford University vaccine. The federal government has signed a letter of intent with drug company AstraZeneca, with further contractual details around manufacture and supply to be worked out in future, if the vaccine is proven successful.
The government has also signed a deal to purchase 100 million needles and syringes to administer a vaccine.
“If this vaccine proves successful we will manufacture and supply vaccines straight away under our own steam and make it free for 25 million Australians,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced.
More than 160 vaccines are in development around the world, and attention has turned to which of the candidates Australia will secure supplies from.
The signing of the letter of intent with AstraZeneca is the first plank of the government’s new COVID-19 Vaccine and Treatment Strategy, also released late on Tuesday.
Under this framework, medical and industry experts are looking at which vaccines to pursue, as well as logistical arrangements around manufacturing and rollout.
“The next step will be to conclude other contractual agreements, including arrangements with a selected manufacturer who can produce the vaccine locally,” an AstraZeneca spokeswoman told The New Daily.
“We look forward to confirming the next steps with the Australian Government and other critical partners shortly.”
The Oxford University coronavirus vaccine has been pegged as a leading candidate for some time, and the federal government has now inked a deal with UK-based drug company AstraZeneca, which Mr Morrison said would make Australians “among the first in the world to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if it proves successful”.
The vaccine is currently still in third-stage trials, where it will be tested on large numbers of volunteers, before moving into wider approvals and production.
It is expected these trials will continue this year, with the vaccine potentially available by the end of 2020 or early 2021.
Under the agreement, Mr Morrison said Australia would receive the vaccine immediately, and be able to produce supplies domestically.
However, many vaccine experts have raised concerns about the timeline of vaccine development.
Some have pointed to the fact that the fastest vaccine ever developed, for mumps, took four years – and warned Australians not to hold their breath for an imminent COVID vaccine.
Mr Morrison also sought to downplay the idea that the Oxford vaccine would be a guaranteed silver bullet and said Australia was looking to lock in multiple agreements in the hopes that one or more of the candidates will be successful.
“There is no guarantee that this, or any other, vaccine will be successful, which is why we are continuing our discussions with many parties around the world while backing our own researchers at the same time to find a vaccine,” he said.
“We are taking advice from Australia’s best medical and scientific expertise to ensure that the government’s work to select, produce and purchase COVID-19 vaccines and treatments is based on the best available knowledge.”
Australian authorities had, for instance, cast doubt on the reliability of a vaccine Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed his researchers had developed last week.
That candidate, currently only in phase two trials, has “enormous risks”, according to local experts.
Labor’s shadow health minister Chris Bowen cast doubt on the government’s announcement on Wednesday, saying the signing of a letter of intent was not the same as securing a vaccine deal.
“This is a Prime Minister who has completely jumped the gun on his announcement… the Government was ready to go with a meme. They just don’t have an agreement,” Mr Bowen claimed.
“I can’t welcome an agreement, which simply does not exist. If the Prime Minister had been honest and just said we have signed a letter of intent. There’s a long way to go. There’s still ongoing discussions and negotiations, but we’re not there yet. I think Australians would have accepted that. But to spin about it, dishonestly is utterly unacceptable.”
In recent weeks, acting chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly said “it’s not going to be years” before a vaccine – and that some of the dozens of candidates were “getting quite close” to useful test results.
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth said several vaccines were in human trials in Australia, calling progress “very exciting”.
However, the World Health Organisation has also previously said a vaccine may “never” come.
Mr Morrison is more optimistic.
It’s too early in the conversation to focus on how much it would cost to secure supplies, the government said – but the signing of a letter of intent with AstraZeneca, and a contract with medical supplies company Becton Dickinson for needles and syringes, is said to be a big step forward.
“From early on Australian officials led by my department has been meeting with developers and manufacturers of a number of promising vaccine candidates, both domestic and international, over recent months,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said.
“We are confident these actions and targeted investments will put us in the best possible position to secure early access to safe and effective vaccines for Australia.”
What form the vaccine will ultimately take is also unclear.
Earlier this week Mr Hunt said it was uncertain at this stage whether a coronavirus vaccine would be a ‘full’ version, which completely blocks the virus, or a ‘partial’ one that may need updating with booster shots –like vaccines for flu.
Another potential fly in the ointment is the plan to manufacture vaccine supplies in Australia.
Local manufacturer CSL would be tapped to produce domestic supplies, but according to a statement from the company, it may not be that simple – with CSL saying it is focusing on a vaccine candidate from the University of Queensland.
“Development of the UQ vaccine candidate remains CSL’s priority,” the company said this week.
“However, we are currently in discussions with AstraZeneca and the Australian government to assess whether it is possible to provide local manufacturing support for the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, should it prove successful, while protecting our commitment to the UQ vaccine.
“We are assessing the viability of options ranging from the fill and finish of bulk product imported to Australia through to manufacture of the vaccine candidate under licence.
“There are a number of technical issues to work through and discussions are ongoing.”