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Covid booster shot warning ‘underlines urgent need for Australia to make mRNA vaccines’

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Christopher Knaus
·4-min read
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<span>Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

The suggestion a third dose of Pfizer may be needed within 12 months shows why Australia “urgently” needs to develop an onshore capability to manufacture mRNA vaccines, experts say.

Overnight, Pfizer’s chief executive, Albert Bourla, said it was “likely” that a booster shot would be needed within a year, with annual revaccinations also a possibility.

“A likely scenario is that there will be likely a need for a third dose, somewhere between six and 12 months, and then from there, there will be an annual revaccination, but all of that needs to be confirmed,” Bourla told CNBC.

Related: Covid booster shot could be needed after nine to 12 months, White House says

Experts in Australia have warned that it is too early to tell how long the Pfizer vaccination lasts. Prof Adrian Esterman, chair of biostatistics at the University of South Australia, said Bourla’s comments were simply speculation and it was too early to worry about them.

“The longest we’ve actually got someone fully vaccinated for is six months, so it’s early days,” Esterman told Guardian Australia. “At this stage we really don’t know how long it’s going to last, it could be two years for all we know.

“But he might be right. He’s just flagging a warning, that’s all. We simply don’t know.”

Bourla’s comments were echoed by the Biden administration, whose chief science officer, David Kessler, told Congress that the US should “expect that we may have to boost, and probably have to boost again”.

“We are studying the durability of the antibody response,” Kessler said. “So I think for planning purposes, planning purposes only, I think we should expect that we may have to boost.”

That raises the prospect of increased global demand for the Pfizer vaccine.

Australia is wholly reliant on imports for the Pfizer jab, and now flying in 130,000 doses a week. The government is aiming to boost the volume of imports considerably, and is relying on doing so to accelerate its rollout program, particularly given the advice recommending under 50s do not receive the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The demand pressures on Pfizer’s vaccine again expose Australia’s inability to manufacture mRNA vaccines. The country has not developed such a capability, despite months of warnings from scientists, the Australian Academy of Science, mRNA experts and the Greens.

A newly-published contract, first reported by Crikey, suggests the concept is at least being considered by the federal government. The industry department paid consultants McKinsey & Company $2m to prepare a business case for onshore mRNA vaccine manufacturing.

The work began in December and is scheduled to be completed by the end of March.

Esterman said he strongly believed the federal government should be investing in domestic mRNA manufacturing as a matter of urgency.

“It’s not difficult to set up,” he said. “It just costs, so it’s really a matter of whether the federal government is going to invest in it, perhaps they could do jointly with one of the big pharmas.

“Nonetheless, it’s something we can do and I strongly believe we should be doing it urgently.”

His comments were echoed by adjunct professor Bill Bowtell, a University of New South Wales strategic health policy consultant. Bowtell said Australia had systematically dismantled its manufacturing and biomedical research capabilities over the past two decades.

“One of the great failures of neoliberal economics has applied in this country over the last 20 years was to abandon manufacturing in general and in particular to abandon manufacturing of highly strategic products like vaccines,” he told Guardian Australia.

“They ought to have put more money into creating an mRNA capacity, that can be done, and, of course, massively restoring the cuts they’ve made to biomedical research and increasing the budget.

“That’s been methodically dismantled by neoliberal governments, by the federal government, and these are the consequences.”

Related: Frustrated experts say Australia could already be producing mRNA Covid vaccines if it had acted earlier

A leading mRNA expert, Assoc Prof Archa Fox at the University of Western Australia, said last week it was frustrating that mRNA manufacturing capability had not yet been developed.

“It is a little frustrating because even if lots of people jumped in now, it still would take at least probably a year, even with plenty of investment,” she told Guardian Australia. “But that’s not too late for boosters against variants and all that sort of stuff.”

The New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said the state had “always assumed” that the vaccine would be needed annually, like the flu vaccine.

“That will be part of our lives,” she said. “What we need to find is a healthy balance of living with Covid.”