Canberra is considering co-funding a A$1bn biopharmaceutical plant to reduce its dependence on imports of critical medicines in the wake of Italy’s decision to block a shipment of Covid-19 vaccine to Australia.
It is also embarking on a diplomatic push to build a “coalition of countries”, including New Zealand, Japan, Norway and Canada, aimed at preventing the EU from obstructing vaccine exports.
Dan Tehan, Australia’s trade minister, said collective pressure would help Brussels “realise what they are doing is wrong”. He warned any delays to Australia’s access to vaccines would affect the wider Pacific region, where Canberra has committed to help immunise against Covid-19.
Tehan said he had discussed his concerns with EU officials and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director-general of the World Trade Organization.
Australia is determined to achieve greater drug independence, too. The government has invited a private consortium headed by UK developer John Laing to apply for seed funding under its A$1.5bn ($1.1bn) modern manufacturing and supply chain resilience programme to design and build a biopharma manufacturing and storage plant.
The proposal, codenamed “The Resilience Partnership”, aims to increase access to medicines, vaccines and raw materials used by the pharmaceutical industry and reduce Australia’s heavy reliance on Chinese and Indian manufacturers.
When asked about the proposal, Karen Andrews, Australia’s industry minister, told the Financial Times that Canberra was boosting its sovereign resilience in critical areas, including advanced manufacturing in response to Covid-19.
“Our government is always looking to work with industry and our researchers to future-proof the nation, and that includes further growing our manufacturing capability and capacity,” she added.
Canberra’s focus on producing and storing medicines is part of a global rethink by nations about their reliance on imports for vaccines, critical minerals and personal protective equipment due to the pandemic.
Italy’s decision to block a shipment of AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia has further underlined the fragility of global supply chains.
A summary of the Resilience Partnership’s proposal, seen by the FT, shows it has asked for A$4m in seed funding to complete project design, engagement from government departments and a willingness to consider a public-private partnership approach.
The initial plan is to build a 35,000 sq m biotech manufacturing, storage and lab facility.
Australia imports more than three-quarters of essential medical products, worth A$16.6bn in 2018, and more than 90 per cent of available medicines rely on essential ingredients originating from India or China. Almost 600 drugs are listed in short supply by the nation’s therapeutic regulator agency with 68 identified as “critical”.
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The Australian Medical Association is backing the proposal, which it hopes could expand to include mRNA technology — an advanced technique that delivered the BioNTech/ Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines.
Chris Moy, AMA vice-president, said the government had shown foresight in planning for “vaccine nationalism” by ensuring Australia retained a sovereign capability to manufacture Covid-19 vaccine through a partnership with the nation’s largest pharmaceutical company CSL.
“In taking an even broader and longer term view, one hopes that it will also see the need for sovereign capability of manufacture of essential medications,” said Moy. “A post-Covid world and new order may not be able to provide the guaranteed supply of cheap medications that we have been used to.”