The federal government has signed a letter of intent with the United Kingdom-based drug company AstraZeneca to supply a University of Oxford COVID-19 vaccine to Australia, and entered a contract with the American company Becton Dickinson for the supply of needles and syringes.
If the current trials were successful, Australia would receive the Oxford vaccine as soon as it became available.
Scott Morrison said the vaccine would then be manufactured here and provided free of charge for all Australians.
“The Oxford vaccine is one of the most advanced and promising in the world and under this deal we have secured early access for every Australian,” he said.
But the Prime Minister cautioned there was “no guarantee that this, or any other, vaccine will be successful”.
The government was continuing discussions with many parties around the world, while also backing research efforts in Australia to develop a vaccine, Morrison said.
The initiatives with AstraZeneca and Becton Dickinson are the first announcements under the government’s national COVID-19 Vaccine and Treatment Strategy, released late Tuesday. It is estimated the cost of the entire strategy, including multiple vaccines, treatments and equipment, will eventually run into billions of dollars.
The action to ensure supplies of needles and syringes is partly informed by the lessons of the early days of the pandemic, when there was a scramble to get hold of enough personal protective equipment from overseas.
The government’s vaccine strategy covers research and development; purchase and manufacturing; international partnerships; and regulation and safety immunisation administration and monitoring.
A technical advisory group, including science and industry expertise, has been set up, chaired by the health department secretary Brendan Murphy. It met for the first time this week.
The Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews, said Australia’s manufacturing capability was a “huge asset” .
“The Australian pharmaceutical industry and its ability to produce vaccines is already among the best in the world and that puts us in a strong position to be able to roll out a COVID-vaccine as quickly as possible,” she said.
The Oxford vaccine is currently in trials in the UK, Brazil and South Africa; trials are due to start in the United States. The trials are expected to run into next year.
Timing is uncertain but the project may deliver the first vaccines by the end of this year or early next year.
There are presently 167 vaccine candidates in pre-clinical and clinical trials including 29 in clinical trials in humans.
It is too early to put funding numbers on the AstraZeneca agreement. A final agreement would cover distribution, timing and price.
The $24.7 million deal with Becton Dickinson secures 100 million needles and syringes. The government says this means Australia would not be hit by any international shortages.
The government stresses it is not confining its search for a vaccine to one candidate.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the government was confident its actions and targeted investments would put Australia in the best possible position to get early access to vaccines.
CSL, which has significant manufacturing capacity, said in a statement that while development of the UQ vaccine candidate remained its priority, “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.”
Morrison is also committed to working for early access to a vaccine for Pacific countries and Southeast Asian regional partners.