CSL backs moves to produce next-generation vaccines in Australia

CSL is in early discussions with the Australian government about how it can make mRNA vaccines onshore, as the biotech giant and its competitors start applying the new technology to other products, including flu vaccines.

Sovereign vaccine-making capacity was catapulted into the spotlight again last week with a commitment in the federal budget for onshore manufacturing, along with a pledge from US biotech Moderna to supply 25 million doses of its product to Australia.

CSL’s chief scientific officer Dr Andrew Nash is vaccinated with the locally manufactured AstraZeneca vaccine by Dr Tony Bartone, the immediate past president of the Victorian AMA. Credit:Joe Armao

Moderna chief executive Stéphane Bancel said the company was in ongoing conversations with the Australian government about local manufacturing.

Messenger RNA – or mRNA – vaccines, which prompt an immune response by delivering a genetic blueprint of instructions to the body, were commercialised for the first time during the pandemic.

CSL, which is currently making 51 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine at its Parkville plant in Victoria, has warned throughout the pandemic that making mRNA products in Australia would take significant time and investment.

However, this week, vice-president of pandemic readiness at CSL’s vaccine arm Seqirus, Dr Lorna Meldrum, told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that the company was now investigating how onshore production of the new vaccines might work.

“The government has been exploring the process to develop onshore mRNA capacity, and we have been involved in these early discussions. The exact details are in confidence – but we support their plan to establish mRNA manufacturing capacity in Australia and look forward to participating in the ongoing process,” she said.

When asked whether CSL could potentially collaborate with a company like Moderna to make its vaccine onshore, Dr Meldrum said those decisions came down to whether a particular product could be successfully transferred to CSL’s facilities.

“Theoretically, if we were able to do a technical transfer of an existing technology like we did with AstraZeneca – and there are currently two registered mRNA vaccines in the world – then we could modify our existing facilities for mRNA manufacturing. That would be a mid-term solution and would involve a willing partner.”

This focus comes as global vaccine developers signal a move to apply mRNA technology to new products, including influenza vaccines.

Moderna is looking to bring influenza and HIV vaccines into clinical trials this year.

CSL is also working on its own mRNA-based flu vaccine candidate, which is set to start human trials next year.

The transition to mRNA vaccines for influenza could have big implications for CSL, which is one of the world’s largest producers of flu vaccines.

CSL’s vaccine arm Seqirus has been a standout performer for the business over the past year, more than doubling its earnings in the first half of 2021 to $US693 million off the back of strong demand for influenza vaccines.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison meets CSL staff working on the AstraZeneca vaccine in Melbourne in March. Credit:Andrew Henshaw

Dr Meldrum said while initial research into the strengths of mRNA vaccines is promising, more work needs to be done to determine the role the technology will play in diseases such as the flu.

“There are a number of factors to keep in mind when considering application of mRNA technology for influenza. Key factors include the need for multiple strains for flu vaccine, the more complex supply chain for mRNA, and whether mRNA is any better than existing vaccines for routine influenza vaccine,” she said.

Analysts have been watching the potential of the flu market closely, noting CSL could see an earnings bump in a post-pandemic world.

“While in the short term, fewer cases of flu mean fewer flu deaths and hospitalisations, over the medium/longer term, the respite from seasonal viruses may leave us more vulnerable to more severe future outbreaks,” Morgans analysts wrote in a note to clients.

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