Vaccine experts say Australia has the potential to make mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer on home soil — but it will take time and investment to ramp up domestic manufacturing capabilities.
- Australia is producing 20 million AstraZeneca COVID vaccines
- New medical advice recommends under-50s should be given the Pfizer mRNA vaccine, and not AstraZeneca, unless benefits outweigh risks
- Experts say Australia could and should eventually start making mRNA vaccines. given the resources to do so
This follows health authorities advising that the Pfizer vaccine should be given to Australians aged under 50, amid concerns of rare blood clots potentially linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Archa Fox, an mRNA researcher at the University of Western Australia, says there is nothing stopping us from making the Pfizer vaccine here.
“This is what we’ve been saying for almost a year. We could be making it. We just need investment,” she says.
“It is actually not that complicated to do from a scientific point of view.
“The technology, the equipment — it exists, we can buy it, we just need, essentially, the will.”
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RMIT University professor of immunology Magdalena Plebanski agrees.
“Scientifically, we are mature and ready to take on a challenge like that as a country,” she says.
“There’s nothing really stopping Australia from going down that pathway.”
Dr Fox says it’s frustrating knowing the Pfizer vaccine wasn’t backed harder by the federal government last year, but admits it would have been difficult for experts weighing up the options.
“It’s all very well and good to say with the benefit of hindsight that we should have invested in this one early on,” she said.
“Because at the start of the pandemic, and middle of last year, there were so many vaccines being developed that it was hard to know which one was going to be the right one.”
So, why aren’t mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer already being made in Australia?
And why did Australia choose to manufacture AstraZeneca in the first place?
Here’s what we know so far.
Pfizer vs AstraZeneca
Both Pfizer and AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines work in the same basic way.
They train the body’s immune system to recognise the spike protein in SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19).
But they do so using different technologies.
AstraZeneca uses a harmless chimpanzee adenovirus to deliver DNA into our cells.
Pfizer, on the other hand, uses messenger RNA (mRNA) encased in a lipid layer, which, until recently, had not been approved for use in a human vaccine.
The mRNA — the active ingredient — is very fragile, which is why it needs to be kept at between -60C and -90C.
Professor Plebanski says because only a few companies in the world manufactured these specialised lipids, it’s led to a shortage of supply.
“Even Pfizer itself has acknowledged that some of the components are quite limited,” she says.
Professor Plebanski compared building the vaccine to assembling a Lego structure, where one of the main blocks was hard to find.
“When one of your Lego pieces is quite difficult to make, your construction process can slow right down.”
Dr Fox agrees, explaining that single-use consumable plastic bags that went into the reactor vessels during vaccine production are in short supply.
Supply issues with essential components of the Pfizer vaccine are one reason why Australia wouldn’t be able to start manufacturing this jab tomorrow.
So if Australia is to start producing its own mRNA vaccines, Dr Fox says it should also look to make the components as well, eliminating supply issues.
Why Australia’s making AstraZeneca
It essentially comes down to already having the manufacturing capabilities.
To make the AstraZeneca vaccine, manufacturers must grow large volumes of mammalian cells, infect them with the adenovirus, filter the adenovirus out, then dilute, test and bottle it.
“There are facilities in Australia [with] the experience to grow safe viral-vector-based vaccines,” Professor Plebanski says.
As such, the decision to back the AstraZeneca vaccine was made by the federal government in December 2020.
Professor Plebanski says at the moment, Australia simply does not have the manufacturing capability to make mRNA vaccines at the scale we’d need — but we could with enough investment.
As well as these logistical issues, AstraZeneca as a company simply doesn’t subcontract in the same way Pfizer does.
“AstraZeneca is very happy to outsource supply,” Professor Plebanski says.
However, Pfizer prefers to maintain its rights to the vaccine and manufacture it as well.
Pfizer doses purchased by the Australian government will be manufactured in the United States, Belgium and Germany.
And Pfizer will start closing down its Australian manufacturing facilities next year.
But Pfizer isn’t the only COVID-19 mRNA vaccine on the market — Moderna, which is rolling out in the US, uses similar technology — which means there are potentially other avenues to getting a local licence.
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‘Potential’ for future
Dr Fox says even though Australia-made mRNA vaccines aren’t on the cards for the first generation of COVID-19 vaccines, they might be in future.
“I don’t think it’s too late. I don’t think this technology is going away. It’s here to stay,” she says.
The other benefit of manufacturing mRNA vaccines is that it’s easier to “tweak” the vaccine to target new and emerging variants, Dr Fox says.
“It’s potentially much more straightforward to tweak the sequence for the variant,” she says.