Australia could become the first country in the southern hemisphere to manufacture mRNA coronavirus vaccines, with the Victorian government committing $50 million to the project.
Acting Premier James Merlino said the funds would help establish a facility able to manufacture coronavirus vaccines, such as those produced by Pfizer and Moderna, in Melbourne.
He said mRNA vaccines, which contain genetic code from a virus rather than the virus itself, are highly effective and can be manufactured quickly, cheaply and safely.
“Twelve months ago would have been the best time to have done this, but the next best time is right now,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
Mr Merlino said the facility would take at least a year to start production but will secure vaccine supply for Australia, as well as neighbouring countries.
“We have seen the challenges of global supply. We know the benefits of onshore manufacturing, and we know the benefits of this technology,” he said.
The $50 million will be spent in partnerships with universities and medical manufacturers over the next two years.
Mr Merlino conceded the final cost of the project would be “hundreds of millions of dollars” and implored his federal counterparts to pitch in.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the state government’s announcement but stressed it would not deal with the nation’s current vaccine needs.
“mRNA vaccines will be important for vaccine element into the future. Australia is going to be part of that and my government will be a part of that,” he said.
Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are only being produced in Europe and the United States.
Australia has relied heavily on the AstraZeneca vaccine, which it has been producing domestically at CSL in Melbourne.
The rollout, however, was plunged into disarray after a very rare blood clotting disorder was linked to the AstraZeneca jab. It led the country’s vaccine advisory group to recommend people under the age of 50 get Pfizer instead.
Professor Peter Doherty said the announcement was good news, given regular booster vaccines against COVID-19 will be needed as the virus changes.
“If we could make those vaccines that would be an enormous advantage,” he said.
He said while the state has the experts to do the job, setting up facilities and getting government approvals would take time, and described the government’s one-year time frame as “ambitious but realistic”.
Health Minister Martin Foley said mRNA technology could also be used to treat cancer and other rare diseases.
“This technology is the way of the future,” he said.
It comes as Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton received his first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, in an effort to boost public confidence in the jab.
“I know it will protect me – and with the second dose in 12 weeks time – that will be really substantial protection,” he told reporters at the Royal Exhibition Building.
Professor Sutton, who is aged in his 50s, reiterated the risk of blood clots was incredibly low and urged anyone eligible for the jab to “step up” at the state’s mass vaccination centres, which opened on Wednesday.
“You are more likely to get a clot at whatever age you are on a long-haul flight to Europe or North America than getting this jab,” he said.
“It’s the risk we accept because it’s really small.”
The Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre and Geelong’s former Ford factory will provide AstraZeneca shots for anyone over 70 with or without bookings as part of phase 1a and 1b of the national rollout.
Victoria has also resumed its rollout of the AstraZeneca shot to people under 50s after a pause on April 9.
The state recorded its 54th day with no new locally-transmitted cases of coronavirus, following 12,606 tests.
There were three new cases in hotel quarantine, taking the number of active cases to 17.