Australia could soon produce more coronavirus vaccines on home soil and become less reliant on shipments from overseas.
The federal government has finally approached the market for expressions of interest in manufacturing mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccines in Australia, after dragging its heels for more than a year.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton said the approach was an important step in future-proofing Australia.
“What everybody has learnt out of this is we just don’t know what the future holds,” he told Nine on Friday.
“It means there is production onshore so that whatever happens into the future offshore, we can contribute to our domestic requirements, and I think it is a prudent approach.”
Mr Dutton said the potential investment would allow Australia to better respond to future pandemics as well as find cures for cancer and other diseases.
Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles said the government should have made the decision last year.
“In the midst of its self-congratulation last year they were complacent in the failure to put Australia properly in the queues of the various vaccine projects around the world,” he said.
“They bet the house on AstraZeneca being able to do the job here and now what you see in the messaging the government is giving is an almost undermining of people having confidence in AstraZeneca.”
Mr Marles said Health Minister Greg Hunt was encouraging people over 50 to get the AstraZeneca jab, while at the same time “dog whistling” about the option of getting another vaccine at the end of the year.
“It’s deeply confusing and the truth of the matter is we need to get vaccinated as swiftly as possible,” he said.
The mRNA vaccines include brands such as Moderna and Pfizer, which are produced overseas.
Industry Minister Christian Porter said mRNA vaccines were an extremely promising branch of medical science and Australian businesses and researchers were already developing their capacities.
“However our market analysis also shows there are gaps and challenges to scale up, which mean it’s not currently possible to commercially manufacture mRNA treatments locally,” he said.
“The government is inviting key commercial providers and potential providers to demonstrate their future capability and explain what government involvement, assistance or support could make that capacity a reality.”
The mRNA technology has the potential to treat many other diseases including cancer and cardiovascular disease.
The government has asked interested parties to submit fully costed proposals to establish mRNA capability, with submissions open for eight weeks.
Applicants need to demonstrate access to necessary intellectual property for manufacturing processes and make products available to the Australian government as required and in priority over other markets.
Manufacturers will need to deliver secure supplies of population-scale mRNA vaccines, including the ability to scale up production to respond to reasonably foreseeable health emergencies.
Any operation would need to be sustained over 10 years with an undertaking to maintain the capability onshore on an ongoing basis.