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Doorstop - Perth

21 May 2021

Interviewer: 
Doorstop

Subject: Sovereign manufacturing capability for mRNA vaccines

E&OE

Minister:
Afternoon everyone thanks for coming out to Neerabup in my electorate. Just by way of background the reason that we're out here today is that next week is Australian Made week from the 24th to the 30th. The first Australian Made we've ever had. So I've been visiting Wesbeam today, which is a magnificent company. Absolutely state of the art technology and their manufacturing process world-scale facilities here.  They trace their history back further than this but this plant here was established around 2004 with $100 million worth of investment and is now producing some of the strongest timber beams in the world - are competing on the international and domestic market with a whole range of countries who produce similar products but doing amazing things here in WA and so James thanks very much for the invitation out here. They are truly magnificent facilities mate and it was a great pleasure to go out.  And they run 24/7 51 weeks a year which is also remarkable. 

It's also the case if I can that the Health Minister, I think, usually on a Friday will provide just a quick update on the number of community cases and the number of vaccinations that have occurred on a weekly basis. I've just on behalf of the Health Minister, going to take on that responsibility today. So I can just inform you all that there are zero community cases recorded as of the last 24 hours and as of the last 24 hours there are 101,146 vaccinations that have taken place in the last 24 hours.  So that is a record number of vaccinations for a 24 hour period in Australia, it certainly illustrates that the vaccination roll out is starting to reach that scale and pace that we have all been expecting. So 101,146 in the last 24 hours with the vaccinations and that takes the national total to 3,472,874. So just that announcement on behalf of the Health Minister.

The major announcement today is with respect to the fact that parallel with my speaking with you, there will be the formal release by the Government of an ‘approach to market’ document, which contains what are usually referred to as a requirements document. The purpose of that document is to establish a process which will run over the next eight weeks where consortium which can involve private sector companies; research institutions; state governments or any combination of a range of enterprises, will be able to put proposals to the Government, where those proposals are designed to look at how the Government could partner with that consortium, and that partnership may involve any number of types of assistance or investment or support from the Commonwealth Government - but how we might partner with those consortia to produce an end-to-end manufacturing, sovereign capability for mRNA vaccines and therapeutic goods in Australia. 

And I think it's just worth reading to you exactly what the requirements of that approach to market are in the document.  There’s eight of those so if you'll bear with me, I'll just go through each of them in turn. 

The first is that submissions that need to come into government will have to be fully-costed proposals and they will need to be proposals for the establishment of end-to-end onshore - that is Australian onshore population-scale mRNA production capacity. 

The second requirement is the proponents will need to have a demonstrated access to the necessary intellectual property for manufacturing processes for mRNA technology, they'll need to show technology transfer capability, and the ability to produce at scale. 

Thirdly, they'll need to demonstrate capacity to make products available to the Australian Government, as required and in priority over any other purchaser.  So it's envisaged that the capacity could be entirely utilised by the Australian Government, given its needs in a particular point in time for the purposes obviously of benefiting the Australian community. 

The fourth requirement is the ability to deliver secure supply of population-scale mRNA vaccines, including to scale up production to respond to reasonably foreseeable health emergencies. What that means is that the proponents would need to show that within a reasonably short period of time, if a health emergency arose - as we have experienced with the COVID-19 situation - that they'd be able to produce population scale production, so that's in excess of 25 million doses in a relatively short period of time. 

Fifthly, they'd need to demonstrate the ability to deliver secure supply of other therapeutic mRNA based treatments of a type and scale that might be reasonably foreseeably required by the Australian Government from time to time. It's a very important point that the mRNA technology is not just about vaccines; it had its genesis in cutting-edge cancer treatments.  It's very likely that as this technology and medical science develops that it won't simply be vaccines but a range of other therapeutic approaches for cancer for cardiovascular diseases that these products would be required. So proponents will need to demonstrate, not merely the scalable ability to develop vaccines, but a breadth of productive capability so that they'd be able to produce therapeutic goods.  Now they might be needed in less than population scale numbers, obviously, but the breadth of the ability to move across therapeutics and vaccinations is going to need to be shown by proponents.

It's also the case that the proponents will sixthly need to show the sustainability of a facility over a decade, over a 10 year period.  And there’d need to be an undertaking to maintain the sovereign capability onshore for the entirety of that 10 year period. 

The seventh requirement is that there would need to be a commitment from a successful proponent to be able to collaborate and build and maintain working relationships with the Australian research community. 

And the final and eighth requirements of proponents would be that they'd need to demonstrate ways in which they can leverage and produce opportunities for export. 

So primarily as I've noted in the earlier requirements the vaccination capability has to be for population-scale in Australia but it's also expected that when we developed an onshore mRNA productive manufacturing capability that that would show the ability to export into global markets and to be commercially viable leveraging those export opportunities. 

So this is a very major development, not merely in the context of COVID-19, but particularly going forward in looking at the way in which Australia can, in the best possible way for the taxpayer and the endpoint consumer, the Australian population, build in as quick a time as reasonably possible a sovereign capability in the manufacture of what is now the cutting edge technology in vaccinations.

QUESTION:
How long do you expect it to take for this mRNA production to be up and running?

MINISTER:
So in the requirements and approach to market document, I recall that the language that is used is a 12-month period. We'd obviously welcome submissions that considered on the part of the proponent and the consortia that they could do it inside 12 months. All of the advice that we had during the period in which we were having this business case by McKinsey suggested that anything inside an end-to-end scalable population-scale capacity would be very unlikely to be developed inside 12 months. If someone thinks that they can do it, we're very interested in that. But 12 months but it would be somewhat longer than 12 months.

QUESTION:
So what could would that be for the successful rollout for people who want mRNA vaccines..?

MINISTER:
Well, we've already secured large supplies of mRNA vaccines, such as the Moderna vaccine. I don't think that there's any commentator in this field that considers that countries like Australia - even advanced OECD countries like Australia - who didn't already have this capacity, could develop this capacity in time for the present variants of COVID-19. 

This is about future-proofing Australia's sovereign capability for future pandemics, for future variants, potentially, of COVID-19. For future challenges, but also for these therapeutic goods which are likely to be the cutting edge of this kind of science - cardiovascular disease, cancer treatments and the like.

QUESTION:
(unclear)

MINISTER:
Well my reading on this has gone back to events 30 years ago. So this technology was first successfully used biologically on mice 30 years ago. And in a 30-year period, it's taken 30 years for the science and technology around the ribonucleic acid form of vaccine to be able to be put into the human body. That's taken a 30-year period. The first time that humans have ever received an mRNA technology-based vaccine has been in the context of COVID. So it is absolutely cutting edge technology. I think when you look at the document that we're putting out today, Australians can have great confidence that we will be one of the small handful of countries that will have an early sovereign manufacture capability for mRNA. But this is an incredibly new technology.

QUESTION:
The Government (unclear) last year, though. Why did it take so long to happen?

MINISTER:
Well what we want to do is produce a deal for the Australian public and if you just wanted any deal you could have done this slightly earlier. But if you wanted the best deal for the Australian public in terms of the way in which we may draw upon the taxpayer to help a consortia set up this manufacturing capability, or if you want the best deal in terms of ensuring the commercial sustainability, the viability of it, that it doesn't just produce vaccines for influenza or future pandemics of the like that we've seen, that it’s also able to have the breadth of productive and manufacture capacity to deal with cutting-edge cancer treatments, cardiovascular disease. If you want the best deal in terms of the commercial viability - the way in which it might draw upon the taxpayer, and ensuring that in the next 12 months and beyond we actually produce a capacity that meets all of our needs - then the right way to go about that was to do the audit of the market which we did first. The business casing through McKinsey's to fully research and understand not merely the capacity of the market but the likely direction of the technology, and then go to this third stage which is the approach to market with the requirements. Now, you could have gone earlier if you just wanted any deal. But if you want the best deal for the taxpayer, the most sustainable and effective deal for the Australian population for a cutting edge technology over the next 10 years, we think this has been the way to approach that process.

QUESTION:
Has there been much interest from established companies? I mean we saw Pfizer pulled out of (unclear)…. areas already. Were you disappointed by that?

MINISTER:
Well, I mean, Pfizer's made some public statements and they've obviously acted as you've noted. It's a matter of public record that we've been speaking directly with Moderna about their potential capacity to establish onshore manufacturing of mRNA vaccines in Australia. One of the important points about this approach to market, and what makes it somewhat different from other approaches to market of the same type, is that all the proponents who might engage in this process over the next eight weeks, will also acknowledge and accept that we've already started direct negotiations and discussions with other companies and that is something that they will be fully aware of as they go into the process. So there'll be two parallel processes - those direct discussions with Moderna and potentially others will continue. They might be concluded inside that eight-week period, but there's no evidence of that yet, they are ongoing. But this parallel process of trying to get as many proponents and you know, part of the McKinsey's process was for us to understand who was out there. University of Adelaide, University of Queensland, CSL and others. So we'd like to see the best possible proposals put to Government so that we can get the best possible 10-year deal for the Australian population for this mRNA.

QUESTION:
What’s your message to older Australians about the Astra Zeneca – if they have concerns should they wait until later in the year when other vaccines are available?

MINISTER:
Well, I think the Health Minister’s addressed that; everyone has individual decisions to make.  But I think one of the things that the experts who are obviously leading all of the advice and input to government is that you can't be complacent around the need to vaccinate. So people will make individual decisions but the AstraZeneca vaccine is one that people will make decisions about.  But those decisions need to be taken in the context of the fact that you cannot be complacent about where Australia is. And when we look at the situation internationally AstraZeneca has been a very effective tool in ensuring that countries can get on with the business of avoiding pandemics and outbreaks of COVID-19. 

QUESTION:
How’s your position now; how’s your mental health?

MINISTER:
Well it’s very kind of you to ask. It's not been an easy period for me personally, but I'm very much enjoying the new portfolio and I'm fully well and truly back to work.

QUESTION:
Will you stand at the next election?

MINISTER:
Well I'm out here in my electorate - thanks all for joining me. I've had amazing support from the people in my electorate and I'm absolutely committed to continuing to support them and work for them and make sure that the Government helps them in their challenges that they've all been experiencing in getting through COVID - totally committed to my electorate.

QUESTION:
How damaging to your chances of re-election would it be if this case hasn't been resolved by then? 

MINISTER:
I can't talk about the case and I think everyone here knows that so.

QUESTION:
How much can the Government put in….(unclear)….

MINISTER:
Well, we've not put a figure here, what we've described in the requirements and the approach to market is that the Government is willing to engage in investment, support or assistance. The reason we did all this preliminary work with the McKinsey's business case and consultation and review is that we wanted to get a very strong sense in Government, as to what might be a reasonable ask from consortia of Government, i.e. the taxpayer, as to what type of support or assistance or investment the Government might make.  Now different consortia might have different strengths and challenges in their application. Some will have more ready and available access to IP; some will have brownfields infrastructure; some won't have as greater access to infrastructure but might have greater access to IP. So that part of the process is fairly broad and it's open for proponents to come to Government with different suggested models of how we could assist; that might be in terms of our procurement and guaranteeing us the government - on behalf of the Australian people as the purchaser of potential products - it could conceivably be in assistance with brownfields or greenfields infrastructure. But we now know, through the preliminary work we've done what might be a reasonable ask for different types of proponents with different strengths and challenges. So we want the best value for the taxpayer. But that is an open-ended process.  But we have obviously a range of commercial in confidence information which gives us confidence that we understand what would be reasonable. 

QUESTION:
Can you give us an idea….(unclear)

MINISTER:
I can’t, it’s very interesting you say that because, depending on what you read and what companies have made comments publicly, or what commentary there has been - the potential way in which he Government may be required to assist on a procurement or financial or infrastructure basis is across a very large range. And so we wanted to make sure that all the preliminary work was done so that we understand what that range might really be so that the taxpayer gets the absolute best value for any money that might be committed after this eight week process.  So I can't, I can't give those figures but your observation’s right, there's been a wild range that's been put out there, and I think we've done the homework and the research and the preparation to have the best possible understanding as to what a reasonable ask might be.

QUESTION:
Are you concerned at all by Queensland's approach to (unclear)…Astra Zeneca….?

MINISTER:
Well I think that the details of the arrangements with Queensland are obviously something that will need to be directed to the Health Minister, I just don't have the day-to-day information about that.  But the AstraZeneca vaccine is a very good option in terms of protecting individual health and the Australian community. And I'm, I'm having a vaccination next week. And I know that what we should all be doing through the media, through Government is encouraging all Australians to get vaccinated - and the fact that we've hit for the first time, over 100,000 vaccinations in a day, tells us that the trajectory of the vaccination rollout is going the way that we would want it to go as Australians who want life to return to as normal as it possibly can and to decrease future risk for our population.  So that trajectory is going the right way and Greg Hunt as Health Minister, the Prime Minister, myself,  everyone who's out is encouraging Australians to get vaccinated.

QUESTION:
(unclear)…electoral prospects for Andrew Hastie…..trying to raise 100-grand….(unclear)

MINISTER:
Well I have absolutely no line of sight into the WA Division of the Liberal Party's finances so I can't answer that question. But look, before every election, and I had it at the last election and whole range of other of my colleagues had it - people were writing people off - seats were definitely going to be won or lost, and all of those, all of those predictions right, they were all hopeless.  And all you can do as a local Member and all you should be doing as a local Member of Parliament is working as hard as you can for the people that support you each election - that's what I’m doing.

QUESTION:
Have you hired a campaign manager for the next election or are you planning to?

MINISTER:
I've never had a hired campaign manager, I'm not aware that members of the Liberal Party here, hire campaign managers, I'm not quite sure what is even meant by that.

QUESTION:
If you lose the defamation case is that the end of your political career?

MINISTER:
So I, I know that you know that I know that I can’t answer questions about that case. And we all know that you ask it, knowing that I can't answer it, so I can’t answer it.

QUESTION:
Which production companies…..(unclear)….mRNA…?

MINISTER:
Well, it's it's open-ended so - we're envisaging that there would likely be, because this is a process where we want partnerships to be developed with government, that there would actually be - we've described it as consortiums, so I would imagine that Research Institute's; CSL would be another; state governments can be part of the consortia, we've already seen some state governments who are obviously trying to attract this type of manufacturing facility into their state.  But this will be a partnership arrangement with Commonwealth Government, so we expect the proponents won't be singular proponents if I can put it that way. 

QUESTION:
(…unclear) 

MINISTER:
Well I guess this is the whole point is that the, in one sense the mRNA vaccine is a simpler vaccine to produce because of the fact that it's a precursor protein. You don't have to go through the stages that you do in the traditional vaccinations of utilising mammalian or chicken cells to try and grow the viral load that you either put into the human body in its dead or inactive form. But synthesizing that precursor protein in the long run, and that's the benefit of the technology, is potentially simpler.  But the technology itself at the moment is cutting edge; the technology and the processes are complicated.  They require certain types of facilities and what our research today has shown us is that there are potentially some existing facilities that can be refitted - brownfield sites. Another option is building entirely new facilities but that is not a quick process. So, again, I don't accept that in any way, this is not a process that is meeting its time markers.  But it has been a front-loaded process; it has required a lot of work and understanding so that we're in the position to go to market and make sure that we get the best possible deal for the Australian taxpayer and the best possible manufacturing capability, which is commercially-sustainable, which is broad, which can meet our health needs across a range of areas including cancer treatment, heart disease, going forward over a decade. Thank you.

ENDS