The Federal Government says it can take up to 12 months to roll out a coronavirus vaccine in Australia, depending on which candidate is ultimately successful.
That’s despite previously saying we could have the vaccine in the first quarter of next year and this month’s Federal Budget assuming a “whole population” vaccination program will be implemented by the end of 2021.
It all depends on whether a successful vaccine is “protein-based” or not.
Then what’s the difference? And why do Government timelines depend on one over the other?
Here’s what you need to know about the vaccines currently supported by the Government, and other promising candidates.
What did the Government say?
Industry Minister Karen Andrews said medical companies CSL and CSIRO were equipped to quickly develop “protein-based” vaccines – such as those developed by the University of Queensland.
CSL is also in the process of realigning its production technology to produce the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine from its factory in Melbourne.
The vaccine is technically a non-protein based vaccine known as a “viral vector”. But CSL says it can produce it here and has “stepped up” the behind-the-scenes work to make it happen.
The Australian Government has committed to purchasing 26 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is considered a pioneer in the race.
But there are other vaccines that are being trialed by pharmaceutical companies including Moderna, which is known as the mRNA vaccine.
Ms Andrews told Insiders it would take more time to manufacture such a vaccine in Australia.
“I hope we can do it in about nine months to 12 months, but I think we have to really realize that with vaccines, there are a lot of variables there.”
So, what exactly is a protein-based vaccine?
Protein-based vaccines are the gold standard, according to infectious disease expert Professor Robert Booy of the University of Sydney.
“Protein-based vaccines have been used for decades, are believed to be safe, and effective to protect infants and children from many infections, including bacterial infections,” he said.
Coronaviruses such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 to attack cells via what are called “spike” proteins and one way to stop the virus is to block these spike proteins from entering cells.
Protein-based vaccines do this by training the body to produce antibodies to the coronavirus spike protein before it can infect healthy cells.
The University of Queensland’s government-supported vaccine builds on this approach.
What is a non-protein based vaccine?
One of the most promising types of non-protein vaccine is the mRNA vaccine, short for the messenger ribonucleic acid vaccine.
This vaccine effectively carries molecular instructions for making proteins – so a person’s body can produce them.
The idea is that the body will then treat these proteins as foreign and increase the immune response and, as with protein-based vaccines, produce antibodies that learn to remember and fight off the virus if the body finds it again.
Professor Tony Cunningham, director of the Westmead Institute Virus Research Center at the University of Sydney, said it was like trying to stop a ship from anchoring (if, in this analogy, the ship is coronavirus and the dock is healthy human cells.).
“The only difference is with a protein-based vaccine that you produce outside your body and are injected into it, whereas with an mRNA vaccine you make your body produce protein,” he said.
The leading vaccine candidates manufactured by the US National Institutes of Health and Moderna are based on this technology, which has already started phase 3 clinical trials.
The Moderna vaccine is a part of The COVAX global vaccine scheme, which Australia has signed.
That The Oxford University vaccine is technically a non-protein based vaccine because it uses what is known as a “viral vector” strategy, which piggybacks the tiny fragments of SARS-CoV-2 around the body in the common cold virus from chimpanzees.
But Karen Andrews was mainly talking about mRNA vaccines when she gave her comments.
What is the possibility of a non-protein based coronavirus vaccine?
While mRNA vaccine technology is very exciting, Professor Booy cautions that it has not been successfully produced and distributed before.
“It is important to realize that all our hopes are not based on the mRNA vaccine, indeed there is no mRNA vaccine that is routinely used for humans,” he said.
“So we took a risk thinking we would rely on the mRNA vaccine for protection of the entire population.
“The MRNA vaccine may prove effective for COVID, but there will be a long way to go for safety and effectiveness testing before we can be sure about the usefulness of the mRNA vaccine.”
He said other types of vaccines were more likely to be available and delivered safely as the first choice.
Health Secretary Greg Hunt also described protein-based vaccines as a “broad reality”, saying on that basis: “Australian manufacturing will be up and running well in the first quarter of 2021”.
Why does the mRNA vaccine take longer to produce?
The answer is simple – because it has never been produced before.
CSL is used to make millions of doses of influenza vaccine each year, which is effectively a protein-based vaccine.
Since an mRNA vaccine has never been developed in Australia – at least worldwide – it would require a complete overhaul of production.
“They need to have an expansion of production capacity and an expansion of the types of products they produce – they have to expand and enhance and change their production processes to make mRNA vaccines,” said Professor Booy.
“It’s much easier for them to make a protein vaccine – they already do it for influenza – millions of doses, every year.”
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