First is the Tams Team. Then it’s Marmite. Could the coronavirus vaccine be the next?
Records of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson using the Tim Tams package to begin formal negotiations for a new free trade agreement with Australia is a proverbial ship that launches a thousand memes.
But there is a possibility – outside – that the next picture from England could become a mop-haired Eton graduate brandishing a very important medicine bottle, saying: “Here it is, friend, and it will come to you.”
This week, a global search for one of the most important medical prizes has ever entered a new phase.
The University of Oxford in England, considered one of the leaders in the search for the COVID-19 vaccine, announced its candidate safe and has produced an immune response in early clinical trials.
The British government has committed to producing 100 million doses Oxford vaccine candidates, if it succeed.
It came amid further news this week that Britain, which is has been damaged by this disease, signing two separate agreements, one with a French company and the other with global pharmaceutical giant Pfizer – understood to be in at least hundreds of millions of dollars – to receive as many as 130 million possible doses of the coronavirus vaccine.
Although the three vaccine candidates might not succeed, the deal effectively orders supplies for the UK if they do.
Returning to Australia, these steps naturally triggered the question: so Britain has a plan … but what do we do?
Wait and see Australia approach
Australia has invested $ 5 million in a University of Queensland vaccine candidate – which one conducted a trial on humans earlier this month.
He also invested $ 19 million to help develop vaccines, and claims to have spent $ 256 million in “vaccine-related activities”.
But no formal commercial arrangements such as the UK have been announced in Australia.
And according to vaccine expert and Federal Government advisor Tony Cunningham, the UK strategy is something the Government needs to consider.
“We are in an interesting position right now,” he told ABC. “And I think we need to look at what Britain is doing.
“But the problem is, and many experts say this, we just don’t know what will win – we don’t know which type of vaccine is the best.”
And he will know.
A contagious disease doctor, clinical virologist and scientist, Professor Cunningham was very involved in launching the vaccine for the latest global pandemic, 2009 swine flu.
He is now the director of virus research at the Westmead Medical Research Institute and lead author of the Australian Academy of Sciences vaccine advice to the Government, where 21 scientists and researchers based in Australia describe which vaccines they think are “most promising”.
But this is a busy field.
There are now more than 200 COVID-19 vaccine candidates worldwide, with 22 in clinical trials.
Professor Cunningham described it as an “inverted triangle”.
“And, in the end, when the triangle gets smaller, you have to return one,” he said.
“But, maybe, the first vaccine might not be the best.”
At the moment, although it does not sit in the hand, it seems that the Government is taking that “wait-and-see” approach, and supporting more global initiatives.
Through a spokeswoman, Health Minister Greg Hunt said Australia was the “main contributor” to the Gavi Vaccine Alliance COVAX initiative.
COVAX is an alliance that includes the Bill Gates-funded Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the World Health Organization, to fund a “global response” to accelerate the development, production and delivery of a fair COVID-19 vaccine.
But apart from this approach, there seems to be an alliance that is forming – and Australia is maneuvering.
The global community is ‘watching’
The government this week confirmed that they were discussing “international licensing arrangements for the COVID-19 vaccine” with the Johnson Government, which would allow Australia to “access and supply” vaccines developed in the UK.
Speaking at a press conference after Friday’s National Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed the UK discussion, describing Oxford’s results as “very interesting”.
The Prime Minister also confirmed that he had discussed with French President Emmanuel Macron. Sanofi France – a specialized vaccine company – has two candidates in development.
However, some experts question whether countries like China or Russia – both accused of carrying out cyber attacks on US and British vaccine research weapons – would be tantamount to any vaccine breakthroughs.
Morrison said the global community was watching.
“Right from the first G20 meeting that we held a few months ago, there was a strong enough commitment to ensure that [when] “someone found it, we have to make it available,” Morrison said.
“And any country that will hoard vaccine discoveries, I think, will not be welcomed with a welcome weapon by the whole world.”
What about manufacturing?
Further questions have been raised this week about Australia’s ability to produce vaccines quickly for mass distribution.
Some vaccine technologies, such as the mRNA technology developed by Monash University, cannot yet be produced in Australia.
That’s because the Australian medical supply and vaccine company CSL – the only company in Australia with the ability to make mass vaccines – only creates certain types of influenza vaccines.
But they have raised their hands to move to a new field of vaccine making.
The Prime Minister said he was confident “in the vast majority” of cases that CSL would be able to reproduce vaccines locally.
CSL told ABC that the UQ vaccine – which it had committed to make – was its priority,
However, CSL vice president of product development Anthony Stowers said the company was committed to “improving [its] manufacturing skills and abilities “to support the development of each vaccine candidate
“This includes the capacity to carry out” downstream “aspects of vaccine production, such as processing licensed vaccine ingredients into bottles at [facilities] in Melbourne, “said Dr Stowers.
“We are exploring ways to support the manufacture of other vaccines that are being developed and will continue to open discussions.”
But despite all the global maneuvers and uncertainties, Professor Cunningham said he believed Australia was in a good position.
“We don’t know which strategy works best – there are so many unknowns,” he said.
“But I would say I’m very pleased with how well the government is listening to scientists.
“And looking around the world, I don’t want to be anywhere else.”