Australians will have access to a COVID-19 vaccine progressively throughout next year if trials prove successful, after a $1.7 billion supply-and-production agreement between the federal government and major pharmaceutical companies.
The two deals, with the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca and the University of Queensland/CSL will provide more than 84.8 million vaccine doses for Australia and its regional neighbours and will be almost entirely manufactured in Melbourne.
About 3.8 million doses of the University of Oxford vaccine would be available in January and February next year for vulnerable Australians and front-line healthcare workers.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said both vaccines would need to be proven safe and effective and meet all necessary regulatory requirements, prior to being made available.
“There are no guarantees that these vaccines will prove successful, however the agreement puts Australia at the top of the queue, if our medical experts give the vaccines the green light,” he said.
He said by securing the production and supply agreements, Australians would be among the first in the world to receive a safe and effective vaccine.
The government signed a letter of intent to secure the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine last month. It is the most progressed candidate, with late-stage phase three trials in Britain, Brazil, the United States and South Africa generating strong immune responses with no significant concerns.
The University of Queensland vaccine has been developed in Australia with government support and recently announced that pre-clinical testing had showed the vaccine was promising and already effective in animal models. Both of the vaccines are likely to require two doses for each person – an initial dose and then a booster.
Trials of more than 160 candidates are expected to continue into 2021, with applications for regulatory approval likely to be submitted in a number of jurisdictions later this year. If proved successful and safe, the Oxford vaccines will be available from the beginning of 2021 while the UQ vaccines would be available from mid-2021.
More than 95 per cent of doses will be manufactured in Australia, with 33.8 million doses of the Oxford vaccine and 51 million of the UQ/CSL vaccine. Each batch of doses will take approximately one month to manufacture.
Mr Morrison also remains committed to ensuring early access to the vaccines for neighbouring Pacific nations as well as regional partners in south-east Asia. Both agreements allow for additional orders to be negotiated and or doses to be donated or on-sold – with no mark-up – to other countries or international organisations.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the aim was to have as many Australians vaccinated as possible and he would consider medical advice on how to achieve that through public information campaigns.
“All vaccinations help save lives and protect lives. This vaccination though is fundamental to the safety of individuals and our nation and it will protect our elderly and our frail and we can all help save lives,” Mr Hunt said.
He said while the government supported immunisation, it would not be mandatory and individuals maintain the option to choose not to vaccinate. Estimates are that up to 80-95 per cent of the population must have immunity to the disease to stop its spread.
Mr Hunt said any decisions regarding vaccines would be based on the advice of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on immunisation and other experts, and will be contingent on a vaccine meeting all requirements with regard to testing and safety.
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Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra