Vaccine experts say Australia has the potential to make mRNA vaccines like Pfizer in the country – but it will take time and investment to increase domestic manufacturing capabilities.
- Australia produces 20 million AstraZeneca COVID vaccines
- New medical advice recommends that people under 50 should be given the Pfizer mRNA vaccine, and not AstraZeneca, unless the benefits outweigh the risks.
- Experts say Australia can and should eventually start making mRNA vaccines. given the resources to do it
This follows health authorities recommending that the Pfizer vaccine should be given to Australians who are under 50 years of age concerns about rare blood clots potentially associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Archa Fox, an mRNA researcher at the University of Western Australia, says nothing is stopping us from creating a Pfizer vaccine here.
“This is what we have been saying for almost a year. We can make it happen. We just need investment,” he said.
“It’s actually not that complicated to do from a scientific point of view.
“Technology, equipment – it’s there, we can buy it, we just need, basically, a will.”
RMIT University professor of immunology, Magdalena Plebanski, agrees.
“Scientifically, we are mature and ready to face such challenges as a country,” he said.
Dr Fox said it was frustrating to learn that the Pfizer vaccine was not more strongly supported by the federal government last year, but acknowledged it would be difficult for experts to weigh its options.
“It’s all very well and good to say with hindsight that we should have invested in this early on,” he said.
“Because at the start of the pandemic, and in the middle of last year, so many vaccines were developed that it was difficult to know which would be the right one.”
So why isn’t an mRNA vaccine like Pfizer made in Australia?
And why did Australia choose to manufacture AstraZeneca?
This is what we know so far.
Pfizer vs AstraZeneca
Both the Pfizer vaccine and the AstraZeneca COVID-19 work in the same basic way.
They train the immune system to recognize the protein spikes in SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19).
But they do it using a different technology.
AstraZeneca uses harmless chimpanzee adenovirus to deliver DNA into our cells.
Pfizer, on the other hand, uses messenger RNA (mRNA) encased in a lipid layer, which, to date, has not been approved for use in human vaccines.
MRNA – the active ingredient – is very fragile, therefore it is necessary to maintain mRNA between -60C and -90C.
Professor Plebanski said that because only a few companies in the world produced this particular lipid, it caused a shortage of supply.
“Even Pfizer itself has acknowledged that some components are quite limited,” he said.
Professor Plebanski compared making a vaccine to assembling a Lego structure, where one of the main blocks is hard to find.
Dr Fox agreed, explaining that the single-use plastic bags that were put into the reactor vessel during vaccine production were not widely available.
Supply issues with critical components of the Pfizer vaccine are one reason Australia can’t start making these injections tomorrow.
So if Australia is going to start producing its own mRNA vaccine, Dr Fox said Australia has to make its components too, eliminating the supply problem.
Why Australia made AstraZeneca
This basically boils down to already having manufacturing capabilities.
To make the AstraZeneca vaccine, manufacturers must grow large numbers of mammalian cells, infect them with adenoviruses, screen for adenoviruses, then dilute, test and bottle them.
“There are facilities in Australia [with] experience developing safe viral vector-based vaccines, “said Professor Plebanski.
Thus, the decision to support The AstraZeneca vaccine was created by the federal government in December 2020.
Professor Plebanski said at the moment, Australia doesn’t have the manufacturing capabilities to make mRNA vaccines at the scale we need – but we can do it with considerable investment.
Apart from these logistical issues, AstraZeneca as a company does not subcontract in the same way Pfizer does.
“AstraZeneca is very pleased to outsource supply,” said Professor Plebanski.
However, Pfizer prefers to retain its rights to vaccines and also produce them.
The Pfizer dosage purchased by the Australian government will be manufactured in the United States, Belgium and Germany.
And Pfizer will begin closing its Australian manufacturing facilities next year.
But Pfizer isn’t the only COVID-19 mRNA vaccine on the market – Moderna, launched in the US, uses similar technology – meaning there are other possible avenues for obtaining a local license.
‘Potential’ for the future
Dr Fox said although an Australian-made mRNA vaccine is not on the cards for the first generation COVID-19 vaccine, it may be in the future.
“I don’t think it’s too late. I don’t think this technology will go away. It will last,” he said.
Another benefit of manufacturing mRNA vaccines is that it is easier to “adapt” the vaccine to target new and emerging variants, Dr. Fox.
“It’s potentially much easier to change the order of the variants,” he said.