The federal government has moved a step closer to locking in tens of millions of doses of a COVID vaccine for Australians, but the companies producing the treatments say it will still be a year or more before some people get access to the jab.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt announced on Monday morning that the federal government had struck a deal with manufacturer CSL to produce nearly 85 million doses of two promising COVID vaccine candidates – one from the University of Queensland, and another from pharma company AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
CSL had previously said it was focusing on the UQ vaccine, but Monday’s $1.7 billion announcement included funding to upgrade its Melbourne laboratory facilities so it can also produce the Oxford candidate. Both vaccines are in late-stage trials, and have not yet been approved for widespread rollout, but authorities are confident they will pass tests.
“Australia needs some hope today. Particularly in Victoria, they need some hope today, and so that is what we’re here to deliver today,” Mr Morrison said at a Parliament House press conference on Monday.
Under the plan, he said, some 3.8 million doses of the Oxford vaccine would be procured overseas and distributed in Australia as early as January. However, both CSL and AstraZeneca have said it could take a lot longer for the full complement of vaccines to be produced and rolled out – potentially not until the end of 2021.
About 30 million doses of the Oxford vaccine are earmarked to be produced in Australia by CSL, but AstraZeneca said it would be about a year before that full package was finished.
“The first doses are expected to be available in the first quarter of 2021, with the remaining 30 million doses produced by CSL over the following months. Final delivery is due by September 2021,” an AstraZeneca spokeswoman told The New Daily.
TND understands it would take until September to produce the 30 million doses. Liz Chatwin, the company’s Australian-based president, said the first 3.8 million doses would be “sourced from overseas”.
CSL also laid out a long-term timeline for the vaccine manufacture and rollout, saying it would be even longer before the UQ vaccine could be produced in sufficient numbers to vaccinate the whole population.
In a written statement, the company said the first doses would be available in “mid-2021” – but in a conference call with journalists, CSL’s chief scientific officer, Dr Andrew Nash, said the full supplies of the local vaccine might not be prepared until the end of 2021.
“With the UQ product, we anticipate if everything goes beautifully, we’ll have approval around the middle of the year , if everything goes well, and a full complement by the end of the year,” he said.
Mr Hunt later tweeted that vaccines would be “available progressively throughout 2021”.
A free COVID-19 vaccine will be available progressively throughout 2021 in Australia commencing in January, if promising trials prove successful, following a $1.7b supply & production agreement between the Aust Govt & pharmaceutical companies.
— Greg Hunt (@GregHuntMP) September 7, 2020
CSL said the Oxford vaccine would likely be a two-dose treatment.
When asked how 30 million doses of the two-dose Oxford vaccine could cover Australia’s 25 million population, Mr Hunt said the announcement was about “a portfolio of vaccinations” – hinting that some Australians may get the Oxford vaccine and others the UQ version.
CSL said the UQ vaccine is in phase one trials. If successful, CSL would “take full responsibility for the subsequent phase 2b/3 clinical trial, which is expected to commence in late 2020”.
Mr Morrison said on Monday that the Oxford vaccine was in more advanced stages of testing, and that the UQ vaccine “still has some work to go, but we’re backing it in”.
“It’ll be some time yet before we can be living in a potentially vaccine environment in Australia. Hopefully that is next year. Hopefully that is
in the early part of next year,” he said.
At the start of his remarks, Mr Hunt noted any COVID vaccine would be “voluntary”. That followed controversy after the last vaccine news in August, announcing the first stage in a potential deal for the AstraZeneca candidate, where Mr Morrison said he “would expect it to be as mandatory as you can possibly make”.
However, in later statements, the PM said “it’s not going to be compulsory to have the vaccine.”
Mr Hunt appeared to back up that statement on Monday.
“It’s about ensuring that there is a free, sovereign, voluntary vaccine program for every Australian,” he said.