Australia’s vaccine capability could receive a boost after Pfizer confirmed it may soon produce more doses than first thought, but delivery of the jab could be thrown into doubt by supply issues in Europe.
Australia has an order for 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, considered the world’s most effective protection from COVID-19.
The vaccine was granted approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration this week.
Pfizer Australia and NZ managing director Louise Graham told a senate committee on Thursday the company could soon be in a position to increase that number after “ramping up its manufacturing capability”.
“As Pfizer is now scaling up and looking to produce far more than was originally expected, we expect to be in future discussions about the ability to increase that (allocation),” she said.
She confirmed discussions with the government were not yet under way, but said she anticipated they would begin once the first batch of the jab had arrived on shore.
She said it was Pfizer that initially reached out to the federal government in late June, inviting it to explore the possibility of securing doses.
But she would not be drawn on the timing of Pfizer’s negotiations with other countries.
The news comes after the European Union reportedly placed export controls on vaccines produced within its borders, including the Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs.
The move was set to disrupt Australia’s rollout plan, which the government said would begin at the end of February.
Acting chief medical officer Michael Kidd said on Thursday the government’s guidance remained unchanged, describing its projections as “cautious and conservative”.
But he conceded the timetable was subject to international supply issues.
The government aimed to inoculate four million Australians by the end of March, but Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid was concerned the development could undermine that aim.
Australia’s Pfizer vaccine supply was being manufactured in Belgium, and Pfizer’s Krishan Thiru said the company was seeking clarity on the ruling.
Pfizer believed the EU had simply asked for a reporting model, requiring manufacturers to report the number of doses shipped out of its jurisdiction, Dr Thiru said.
But with Pfizer developing a “just in time model”, seeing vaccines shipped as soon as they were ready, it was critically important to avoid export controls that could risk patients’ welfare, he said.
Pfizer would not be drawn on whether it had a contingency plan if export controls were implemented.
AstraZeneca predicted it was still on track to deliver 1.2 million doses of its vaccine to Australia in late February, but conceded the EU had made the situation “fluid”.
But it stressed that, with 50 million doses to be manufactured in Melbourne, its operations in Australia would not be greatly impacted.
In a bid to shelter Australia from disruptions in global supply chains, the government has prioritised manufacturing vaccines onshore, a move Dr Khorshid said “made sense”.
But he was more critical of national cabinet’s reopening framework.
Dr Khorshid said Australia had managed the outbreak “extraordinarily well”, but accused national cabinet of adopting the “wrong approach … (by) clearly prioritising economic success over health”.
Key to that was the aim to a return to normal before Christmas, which prompted a “rush” to reopen, he said.
An outbreak on Sydney’s northern beaches prompted a pre-Christmas lockdown, an outcome Dr Khorshid described as “no surprise”.
“The framework … clearly failed to meet its stated goal of pretty normal by Christmas. Instead we saw Australian outbreaks and the reintroduction of fairly harsh restrictions to certain areas of the country,” he said.
Dr Khorshid warned that, with new highly contagious variants emanating from the UK and South Africa, the success of Australia’s hotel quarantine and imminent vaccine rollout should not be cause for complacency.
The government has come under fire for failing to secure a deal with Moderna, which claimed its vaccine was effective against the South African strain.
Dr Khorshid told the committee the Moderna jab “could have been approved by now, in a similar time frame to the Pfizer vaccine”.
“We have no information as to why the government went for Pfizer over Moderna or why we were unable to achieve a deal with them,” he said.
“If we had more deals, we would have a greater set of choices as to what vaccines to use in our in initial rollout.”
But he said the government had a “reasonably good hit rate in terms of success” after making a number of “bets” on vaccines.
AstraZeneca insisted it took the reports vaccines would not be effective against the new strains “really seriously” but said there was no evidence to support the claim.
Pfizer said its vaccine effectively neutralised the UK strain, and early indications suggested it could treat the South African strain, but would need further testing before confirmation.