The world-leading Moderna COVID vaccine has been added to Australia’s rollout arsenal, but experts warned production issues with Novavax might again derail the government’s hopes to have everyone inoculated by year’s end.
“It’s worth having, but you can’t count them until they arrive,” Professor Mike Toole, epidemiologist at the Burnet Institute, told The New Daily.
American biotech firm Moderna made the surprise announcement late on Wednesday that it would supply Australia with 25 million doses of its mRNA vaccine – 10 million this year, and 15 million to deal with COVID variants in 2022.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said Moderna would be the “foundation” of Australia’s strategy for booster shots into 2022, with expectations the current crop of COVID vaccines may need regular top-ups.
“This locks in our capacity to ensure every Australian has access to a vaccine this year,” Mr Hunt said, the latest vaccination projection after a confusing week of shifting messages.
Australia is currently allocating the AstraZeneca vaccine for those over 50, and the Pfizer mRNA vaccine for those under 50.
Australia has contracts for 54 million AstraZeneca, 40 million Pfizer and 51 million of the yet-to-be-approved Novavax vaccine. The Moderna deal is not currently expected to change Australia’s rollout plan.
“If our Pfizer vaccine follows through with the contracted amounts of 40 million, then we’ll have enough for all Australians to have access to mRNA irrespective of the age,” Mr Hunt said.
Moderna ‘balances’ Novavax delays
But Mr Hunt also said the Moderna deal would be a “reserve supply” for this year, if other contracted vaccines face unexpected hurdles.
The announcement came just days after Novavax, which Australia also plans to use for booster shots, announced it had run into major manufacturing issues overseas, and would likely not meet the government’s hopes for supply.
Novavax’s chief executive told investors this week the company was “not able to predict a date with precision” as to when it might submit its vaccine to regulators in Australia, admitting “we are delayed from where we thought we’d be”.
Australia had expected Novavax supplies from the second half of 2021, but the company now says it won’t reach full production capacity until toward the end of the year.
The Moderna supply agreement was welcomed by Professor Toole.
“It balances the bad news earlier in the week from Novavax,” he said.
“Novavax was going to be critical for the third and fourth quarters of 2021, and now we’re probably not getting it this year. Having a new vaccine, Moderna, will help bridge that gap.”
Speaking to the ABC, Professor Toole added that he “can’t see us getting doses into the country until early 2022”.
Mr Hunt stressed Novavax was also considered a “contingency”, and the government had “very conservative expectations on the arrival”, but he still expected first supplies to arrive this year.
Australia’s rollout has already been plagued by production and delivery delays, forcing the government to shelve initial plans to have four million people vaccinated by late March.
As of Thursday, 2.894 million doses had been delivered, but numbers are accelerating; 82,000 shots in the past day, following a record week of 402,000 doses last week.
Australia’s COVID vaccine supply plans are heavily backended, with tens of millions of doses of Pfizer, Novavax and now Moderna expected in the last three months of 2021.
Labor’s shadow health minister Mark Butler welcomed the announcement but noted tens millions of Moderna doses had been delivered across the United States and Europe already.
“If the rest of the world struck deals with Moderna as early as last year for access to this state-of-the-art vaccine, why do Australians have to wait to the end of this year?” Mr Butler asked.
Experts back new deal
“The Moderna vaccine has shown an overall vaccine efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19 of 94.1 per cent, and 100 per cent efficacy against severe COVID-19,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement.
Mr Hunt could not confirm which specific cohorts in Australia would receive Moderna, noting the Therapeutic Goods Administration still needed to approve and give advice on the vaccine.
Professor Catherine Bennett, Deakin University’s chair in epidemiology, suggested the next-generation vaccines in 2022 specifically geared for variants could be prioritised for frontline workers in health or quarantine roles.
Professor Greg Dore, infectious disease expert at UNSW’s Kirby Institute, called the Moderna announcement “great news”.
“It’s really important to have as many irons in the fire as possible. There may be further delays in the Novavax timeline, which was always going to be the important part of what was in the mix,” Professor Dore told TND.
He backed the government’s plan to start investing in vaccines specifically engineered to address COVID variants, noting the AstraZeneca shot had a lower efficacy against the South African strain.
“It’s a good move to look at vaccines specifically modified to take care of that variant,” Professor Dore said.
“It shores up the rollout strategy, particularly the maintenance of immunity into 2022, and safeguards against variants that may circulate more readily.”
Mr Hunt said the government wasn’t expecting Moderna doses to arrive until the end of the year, with hopes of just one million in the third quarter, and a further nine million in the final three months.
Professor Bennett said Australia would “need as much as we can get”, to accomplish what the government has called a ‘sprint’ at year’s end.
“There’s very similar safety and efficacy compared to Pfizer, but there’s some small advantages with Moderna,” Professor Bennett told TND.
She noted Moderna vaccines can be kept in normal medical freezers, not requiring the ultra-cold special storage of Pfizer, and do not spoil as quickly when kept at room temperature.
“Those practical benefits will help as we’re pushing in the latter half of the year,” Professor Bennett said.
She also said it was “massive” Moderna was interested in building manufacturing facilities in Australia to produce its vaccine.