Australian startups push for bigger role in vaccine-making

By Emma Koehn


An Australian startup racing to develop a successful coronavirus vaccine has urged the federal government to ensure small firms are given development deals alongside pharmaceutical giants.

Of more than 160 vaccine candidates around the world, the tie-up between global biotech CSL and the University of Queensland is considered frontrunner.

However, smaller firms have also been involved in the development of possible candidates, including South Australian startup Vaxine, which is hoping to become one of the top five vaccine programs worldwide over the next three months.

The company’s founder, Professor Nikolai Petrovsky, said the pandemic showed how important it was for Australia to make sure it was engaging with firms beyond multinational biotechs to discuss supply.

“By giving all government procurement contracts to big companies, this blocks opportunities for any up-and-coming companies and [brings] no opportunity to create an innovation ecosystem,” he said.

“This is a major problem in Australia, whereas the US government mandates that a proportion of even the largest procurement contracts must flow to small- to medium-sized enterprises.”

Vaxine is planning its phase two and three trials of its COVAX-19 product and has been looking overseas for broad-scale manufacturing options given Australia would not have capacity to produce its doses onshore.

The company hopes it can work with the Australian government to deploy its vaccine locally if successful but has not yet been able to engage policymakers in that conversation.

A spokesman for Health Minister Greg Hunt said the government was working on a range of fronts to secure vaccine supply for Australians.

“Negotiations are well under way with COVID-19 vaccine developers on access and supply. The Australian government is considering advance purchasing options as well as local manufacturing options,” the spokesman said.

The government acknowledges that its key focus has been engaging biotechnology giant CSL in manufacturing.

“Our clear expectation and intention is to be able to provide manufacturing onshore through CSL either being a producer of Australian vaccines or producing under licence for an overseas vaccine supplier,” the spokesman said.

Contract manufacturers say CSL is best placed to produce a vaccine at scale in Australia but that the country should still be looking to invest in manufacturing options for different stages of the vaccine making process.

Melbourne firm Sypharma works with researchers on the “fill and finish” part of vaccine making, adding products to vials and ensuring they are safe for use in clinical trials.

The company has worked on both Vaxine’s candidate as well as clinical trial doses for the University of Queensland.

Sypharma’s business strategy and innovation manager Ganesh Varnakulasingham said he hoped policymakers would think hard about future investment in the contract manufacturing sector. “One of the things that comes out of this pandemic for me is that lack of security that Australia has within its shores to be able to move quickly and be able to make 100 million doses of a vaccine,” he said.

While companies such as Sypharma tend to work on projects up only to about the phase two trial stage, Mr Varnakulasingham said more investment in firms of this size could attract more biotech business onto Australian shores.

“The exposure for us [from COVID products] has been great. We are finding a lot more people in that phase one stage reaching out and touching base.”