'We can't go back to the old way': pandemic shows need to invest in vaccine research

'We can't go back to the old way': pandemic shows need to invest in vaccine research

Liz De Somer, chief executive of Medicines Australia, says the pandemic shows funding for vaccine research is crucial. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Liz De Somer, chief executive of Medicines Australia, says the pandemic shows funding for vaccine research is crucial. Picture: Elesa Kurtz


As Australians wait for access to the COVID-19 vaccine, the peak body representing pharmaceutical companies says funding for research is vital.


As Australia enters the final stages of approvals for COVID-19 vaccines and finalises elements of the rollout plan, the peak body representing medical research and development companies has called for vaccine research to be better funded.

In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia, the federal government has signed cheques worth billions, both for vaccine research and for doses of a handful of promising vaccine candidates.

The University of Queensland's molecular clamp vaccine, which has since been abandoned, received millions of dollars in federal and state government funding, but that wasn't a standard experience.

"If we don't invest in research and innovation, then we lose at the end of the day," Medicines Australia chief executive Elizabeth De Somer said.

Representing the major pharmaceutical companies, Ms De Somer has watched as her members have pulled out all the stops in responding to the pandemic - ensuring supply of other medicines for Australia in an era of reduced travel, manufacturing personal protective equipment, and COVID diagnosis, treatment and vaccine developments.

While the COVID-19 vaccine development and accelerated approval process so far seemed to be a success, it's a sign of what was needed in the future, Ms De Somer said.

"What is really important is we that we can't go back to the old way of looking at vaccines," she said.

"We don't value vaccines for the benefits that you get from a vaccine in the way that we should. It's very difficult to put a value on an illness avoided when you can't guarantee that you would have got it."

The main vaccine candidates being considered by Australia Therapeutic Goods have built on already existing technologies, showing how research that is valued and funded outside of a crisis paid off when a desperate moment arrived for the world.

"Clearly at the moment there is a moral imperative to rid the world of this virus, but if we then turn around and say, 'yeah, OK, but we don't value research on vaccines and we're not going to invest in them in the future', then we're not going to be ready for the next one," Ms De Somer said.


Ms De Somer saw opportunities to build on the crisis of the pandemic in Australia, both in research and development, and investment in advanced manufacturing.

"That's the mindset we have to think about - how do we invest in the research and development for new vaccines in a model where we don't know we're going to need one?" she said.

The leading companies involved in developing vaccines already in use or soon to be in use around the world have committed to a non-profit model for their vaccines and working with governments for distribution rather than the private market. But viewing pharmaceutical profits as a bad thing did not help patients, Ms De Somer said.

"The companies that I deal with, and I represent, have always got the patient in mind ... they're not trying to sell you snake oil," she said.

"What we've seen in this particular instance, is that when the chips are down, you need the industry, you need its investment, you need its dollars, you need its shareholders to put in the the grunt work and the money, to deliver on the outcomes. And you weren't get that from a university."

Australia's limited medical manufacturing capability has been in the spotlight when it comes to the government's rollout plans. The Pfizer vaccine, the first to be approved overseas, could not be manufactured in Australia due to the mRNA technology it used. CSL would manufacture the AstraZeneca vaccine at its Broadmeadows factory, but has said it couldn't manufacture the Novavax vaccine at the same time.

The Australian government has funded CSL to upgrade its facilities for the AstraZeneca vaccine, but there were fears the initial vaccine rollout of the Pfizer vaccine may be delayed as it needed to be imported.

"There are some opportunities with advanced manufacturing but I think we also have to be realistic. We're not going to be able to manufacture everything in Australia forever," Ms De Somer said.

"Even if you could manufacture everything, you're not necessarily going to be able to manufacture the ingredients to manufacture it. So you're always going to rely on a supply chain somewhere along the line."

Ms De Somer hoped in the wake of the pandemic, more focus would be on how the medical world could be part of the economic recovery as well as the health response.

"There is a discussion about how do we incentivise the pharmaceutical industry to create more jobs here, to do more research here to do more clinical trials here," she said.

"What are the things that we can do to contribute to that economic recovery?"


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