Biotech company pushing to begin local production of mRNA vaccines

An international biotech company says it could manufacture mRNA COVID-19 vaccines — including Pfizer’s — in Australia, but would need support and investment from the federal government.

BioCina last year purchased Pfizer’s former manufacturing plant at Thebarton in Adelaide’s west and said it had the capability to develop key ingredients for coranavirus vaccines.

“We already have a really good facility in Thebarton that is commercially approved to manufacture microbial products,” BioCina’s chief executive Ian Wisenberg told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“The part that we need to still establish is the ability to be self-sufficient in the starting materials, essentially the plasmas that are required to produce these mRNA vaccines.”

Pfizer’s vaccine is currently being imported into Australia, but senior health experts have been in in talks with pharmaceutical companies about developing local manufacturing capability.

BioCina said its proposal would heavily depend on federal government investment and a licensing deal with major producers of mRNA vaccines.

If such approval was forthcoming, production of “tens of millions of vaccines” could begin within six to 12 months, Mr Wisenberg said.

“There’s a lot of ifs here. The big if frankly is — is the government able to licence this technology from Moderna or Pfizer, the two leading mRNA vaccine companies?” he said.

“The government would have to get the approval of Pfizer or Moderna to do a ‘tech transfer’, we call it. They’ve developed this process, they have the IP, they own it.”

He said the monetary cost would likely be in the “tens of millions” of dollars.

Executive director of the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) Steve Wesselingh said securing approval would be a significant step towards coronavirus vaccine self-sufficiency in Australia.

“Having the sovereign capacity to manufacture in country and purchase from a manufacturing facility in country would be absolutely ideal,” Professor Wesselingh said.

“There were clearly monies put aside in the budget to help sovereign production of mRNA vaccines in Australia.

“At the moment, Pfizer’s making a lot of money out of this because we’re buying Pfizer vaccines from overseas and I think it would be much better to have that production in Australia.”

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said the federal government was committed to establishing an mRNA vaccine facility in Australia, but described BioCina’s proposal as “one option” to achieve that outcome.

“This is a new type of vaccine technology that didn’t exist previously,” he said.

He said there were measures in last night’s budget that would compel the government “to negotiate with those who have developed the patents and have those mRNA vaccines … like Pfizer and Moderna, to find one of them willing to transfer that technology to a manufacturer in Australia”.

“Premier [Steven] Marshall has raised the potential of that South Australian company with me before today, as has South Australian Industry Minister Stephen Patterson, highlighting the potential of BioCina and our health department’s been talking with them,” he said.

Mr Marshall said he had also spoken to federal Health Minister Greg Hunt about the BioCina facility.

“They’ve got a great ability with the mRNA capability that we so desperately need across the world,” he said.

The facility would be used for microbial fermentation to produce plasmid DNA — a key ingredient of mRNA vaccines.

“We are the only US-FDA TGA approved facility in Australia for commercial manufacture of microbial products,” Mr Wisenberg said.

“There’s a huge requirement not only now but going forward where you’re going to have booster shots.

“We’re currently negotiating COVID-19, but it could be COVID-22 or 23 in a year or two.”


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