Humanitarian agencies and health leaders have called on the federal government to continue producing AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine to help developing countries in our region.
They also warn that Australia could become “vulnerable” to new virus variants without doing more.
The government’s contract with Melbourne’s CSL facility to produce AstraZeneca’s jab will not be renewed once all 53.8 million doses in the current order have been completed, potentially leaving Australia without local vaccine production.
“We have committed to vaccinating the region, but to what level does our own vaccine not produce a threat to the region?” said Professor Brendan Crabb, President of the Australian Global Health Alliance and Director of the Burnet Institute.
“If you do not make your own vaccine, do not call the shots.”
‘Never considered’ continuing to do AZ: Hunt
Health Secretary Greg Hunt said Thursday that while production of all 53.8 million doses would continue into 2022, the government did not plan to extend CSL’s contract to make AstraZeneca beyond that.
“It was never considered that CSL would become a contract manufacturer for others,” Hunt said, noting that it was a private company that also made poison and flu vaccines.
“They have been truly impeccable, excellent, Australian citizens. They have acted for national interest. They have derived enormously. ”
But aid groups called it a missed opportunity for Australia to help developing countries still desperate for COVID vaccines.
“This development threatens to leave our neighbors even more vulnerable than they already are,” said Pastor Tim Costello, of the End COVID For All coalition of humanitarian groups.
Just this week, the organization said Australia should look to become a “vaccine factory” for the region.
Some of our closest neighbors in the Pacific are still at a worryingly low level of vaccination, such as Papua New Guinea, which has less than one percent of the population protected.
“We should not give up a capacity that our region needs. Domestic production gives us the upper hand against an uncertain global market and fragmented supply chains, ”said Pastor Costello.
“The Pacific and Southeast Asia will need more vaccines, and for a number of reasons, including stability, easy transportation and price, AZ is a highly effective solution for the region.”
He called the decision not to continue producing AstraZeneca “very regrettable” and called on the government to reconsider.
Australia had originally considered AstraZeneca as the “workhorse” of our vaccine rollout.
However, decisions to limit it to just over the 60s and the purchase of tens of thousands of millions of mRNA vaccines meant that the government was left with large amounts of profits from AstraZeneca.
Australia is now donating millions of AstraZeneca doses to the Pacific and developing countries – more than 3.57 million already distributed, pledging to provide 60 million vaccines by the end of 2022.
“Virtually everything produced from here will go to the region,” Hunt said of future CSL production in Australia.
But with billions of doses needed to protect developing countries, there will be a need to continue manufacturing COVID jobs well into the future.
University of Sydney public health experts last month proposed “expanding this capacity and ensuring that CSL produces as much AstraZeneca as possible locally”.
Labor’s shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong called it a “confusing” decision not to extend AstraZeneca production.
“None of us are safe until the world is safe. We must beat COVID, not only at home, but all over the world. This is how we ensure that we are safe, ”she said.
“Why would we not continue to produce these and make sure our region is safer and more secure, I mean it’s just short term … it keeps them safe, but it also keeps Australia safe.”
Experts question the ‘long-term’ plan
Professor Crabb, an expert in infectious diseases and public health, said the federal government should be applauded for its efforts to donate and pledge vaccines to developing countries already.
However, he said there was a strong advantage in Australia producing COVID vaccines – for our own people and for neighbors.
“A humanitarian cause is enough to do that, but there are also very strong interests of self-interest,” Professor Crabb said. TND.
“There is no conceivable way Australia will get out of this if the world does not get out of it too. As clichéd as it sounds, it’s true.
“Some countries [have] ‘variant of worry’ … if we do not do more, we ourselves are vulnerable. “
He said AstraZeneca was “a very good vaccine in every way”, but had advantages over mRNA vaccines in developing countries; for example, not having the same ultra-cold storage requirements as Pfizer or Moderna’s jab.
“There will be a huge call for vaccines for a long time yet,” Professor Crabb said.
“I am not overly critical of the government, but we as a global health community must see Plan B.
“If we do not make AstraZeneca, how can we and the region be sure that we can live up to our promises to do more?
“There must be a long-term vision to produce vaccines locally, anywhere in the world.”
Despite no plans to continue manufacturing AstraZeneca vaccine, CSL has not ruled out making other vaccines.
TND understands that the company would still be open to considering the manufacture of the Novavax vaccine if it was approved by Australian regulators.
CSL said earlier that it would only consider this option once the AstraZeneca contract was concluded.
CSL also told TND in July, it was “actively exploring the possibilities of producing mRNA”.