The federal government has abandoned a deal to buy tens of millions of doses of a potential coronavirus vaccine being developed in Australia.
The COVID-19 vaccine candidate being trialled by the University of Queensland and biotechnology company CSL has been dumped after some participants returned false positive results for HIV.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed the development on Friday.
“The University of Queensland vaccine will not be able to proceed, based on the scientific advice, and that will no longer feature as part of
Australia’s vaccine plan,” he said.
Mr Morrison insisted the government’s COVID vaccine rollout remained on track, despite the setback.
“What happened today is not a surprise to the government,” he said.
“We are moving swiftly but not with any undue haste.
“The system’s working as it should and Australians are protected, as always.”
The government was reportedly told on Monday that UQ and CSL had halted trials. On Thursday, cabinet agreed to end an agreement to buy 50 million doses of the potential COVID vaccine.
Friday’s confirmation came as Victoria notched up six weeks without new virus cases or fatalities. Its 42nd consecutive day came with hundreds of returned travellers in hotel quarantine after this week’s resumption of the state’s program.
NSW also had another day without community transmission of the virus. It had nine more infections in hotel quarantine.
In a statement to the ASX on Friday, CSL said the coronavirus vaccine had returned false positive test results for HIV in trials of more than 200 volunteers.
“It is generally agreed that significant changes would need to be made to well-established HIV testing procedures in the healthcare setting to accommodate rollout of this vaccine,” it said.
“Therefore, CSL and the Australian government have agreed vaccine development will not proceed to phase two/three trials.”
There is no risk of patients contracting HIV from the trial jab. But UQ vaccine co-lead Paul Young said fixing the vaccine would have set back development by a year.
“I think there’s probably a single word that sums it up, it’s ‘devastated’,” he said.
“The last 24 hours or so have been particularly difficult. The last 11 months we’ve been living and breathing this project … it’s challenging times, but that’s science.
“While this is a tough decision to take, the urgent need for a vaccine has to be everyone’s priority.”
In another major vaccine development on Friday, jabs are likely to begin in the US within days after a panel of outside advisers to the US Food and Drug Administration voted overwhelmingly to endorse emergency use of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine.
Shots will begin as soon as the FDA signs off– on the expert committee’s recommendation.
Back in Australia, the federal government has previously said it wanted to start rolling out a COVID vaccine early in 2021.
On Friday, Mr Morrison said the focus would turn to other candidates after the abandonment of the University of Queensland option.
“We are increasing our production and purchase of AstraZeneca vaccines from 33.8 million to 53.8 million, and we’re increasing our access to the Novavax vaccine from 40 million to 51 million – so that’s an extra 20 million doses of AstraZeneca, and an extra 11 million doses of Novavax,” he said.
Both boosted contracts would be enough to cover all of the Australian population.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is being developed in a joint program with Oxford University. It is also being manufactured at CSL in Melbourne.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said all of the vaccine contracts the government had signed had allowed it to either withdraw or boost production, depending on scientific advice.
“The final outcome from all of that is that there is the potential for slightly earlier completion of the vaccine rollout for Australians in 2021. So that net result is a very important outcome for Australians,” he said.
“This is the scientific process working. It’s the planning process working.”
Phase one trials of the UQ vaccine will continue to find out how long the HIV antibodies persist in participants. CSL said studies had shown levels were already falling.