Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Statements by Senators

COVID-19: Vaccination

12:15 pm

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on a matter that is critical to the security of our nation and the welfare of our population. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many valuable lessons. Many of these have been tough lessons to learn, but as a government we have shown that we are capable of learning as new data and more dangerous variants have emerged. One of the lessons that this pandemic has taught us is that, at times of international crisis, when fear is gripping the world, access to essential goods is critical to the security of our nation. The closure of borders, limited supply chains and the hoarding of supplies are all examples of how we have seen other nations react in response to this crisis. Not all of these reactions have been in Australia's national interest. It is therefore critical that we have sovereign capability to manufacture and provide essential goods, whether they be PPE, vaccines or other items essential in our supply chains. The lessons we learn from this pandemic will be vital to how we respond to other crises, not just other pandemics.

CSL's ability to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine domestically has shown us the benefits of having this type of industry in Australia. I would encourage those opposite to stop fearmongering, stop promoting vaccine hesitancy and get behind this amazing vaccine. I have. It is protecting me. While we have been blessed to be able to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine in Australia, which has been integral to our vaccine rollout and to saving countless lives around the world, we have seen a number of examples of other nations withholding vaccine supplies at the expense of nations such as ours, but more importantly at the expense of poor countries with no sovereign capability. The EU can never again lecture other countries on the basis of morals. This highlights the value of having domestic capability to research and manufacture medical technology locally. We must be prepared for the next pandemic and we must be prepared to stand on our own two feet.

As we have seen from around the world, vaccinations have been key to living with COVID-19. If we are to ensure the health and security of our nation, we must be able to produce our own vaccines and produce the latest and most effective medical technologies. We've seen throughout this pandemic that our economic security and national security are inextricably linked to our health security. We cannot have one without the other. While the Morrison government has handled this pandemic and we have managed to have fewer deaths, more people in jobs and an economy that is performing better than it was pre-pandemic, we might not be so lucky next time. The Australian government has made substantial investments to support access to safe and effective vaccines for all Australians.

Just this week, as you would have noted, the Therapeutic Goods Administration provisionally approved the Moderna vaccine, which is another example of an mRNA technology vaccine like the Pfizer vaccine. Going beyond the current pandemic, mRNA has the capability to be translated into broad therapeutics and vaccines for diseases like cancer, HIV, the flu and cardiovascular disease. To ensure that Australians have access to the most advanced medical technology, we must develop a sovereign capability to research and manufacture mRNA technology in Australia. This must be done not just in response to the current crisis but also because of the capability it will provide us to protect and treat Australians from future health threats, as well as current difficult-to-treat diseases.

Work is currently underway to create mRNA technology around the world to address illnesses such as cancer, HIV, Zika virus, Epstein-Barr virus and autoimmune disorders, as well as cellular engineering and protein replacement therapies. Not only that; the development of a sovereign capability to create mRNA technology will create the potential for thousands of associated jobs and for great benefits to our economy. However, constructing this sovereign capability is no easy task. Such a vital and critical undertaking is a complex task, and where Australia decides to place and operate an mRNA facility is a critical decision for the future of the nation. An mRNA manufacturing complex requires the best medical research ecosystem and support. It needs to be located somewhere which has a proven pharmaceutical research capability, and it requires a workforce with skills in complex precision pharmaceutical manufacturing. There is only one state in Australia which ticks all these boxes, and it is Victoria, my home state.

If we are to be successful in this undertaking, we must first place this facility where we have the strongest capability. The state that I represent, Victoria, is the home of Australia's biotech and medical research community. No other state in Australia can match the depth of research, therapeutic, clinical and manufacturing experience that Victoria has to offer.

Opposition Senator:

An opposition senator interjecting

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will take that interjection and I will debate you on that any time you like. If you give me another 10 minutes, I'll run through every point of why Victoria could beat South Australia hands down. We are already home to 70 per cent of the global and domestic pharma industry, with companies such as CSL, GSK and Pfizer. This is combined with world-leading research institutes, such as Burnet, Doherty, Walter and Eliza Hall, Florey, and Peter Mac, and two global-top-20 universities, including my alma mater, the University of Melbourne, and the university at which I am currently studying, Monash University. This makes the state well poised to begin this endeavour. In Victoria we have the nation's largest talent pool of researchers and the largest pharmaceutical manufacturing workforce. Specifically, the state already has the greatest concentration of RNA researchers in Australia, working on mRNA vaccines, samRNA and other RNA therapeutics. With such a strong RNA ecosystem and capacity in research, translation and manufacturing of pharmaceutical goods, Victoria is ideally placed to develop the sophisticated supply chain that is required to establish onshore mRNA manufacturing. Due to the fact that we already have this native capacity in Victoria, it simply would not make sense to locate this type of facility anywhere else.

Currently, the wheels are already moving in Victoria for this to happen. Universities, research institutes and industry are already working to accelerate onshore mRNA clinical development and manufacturing. What is truly exciting is that we have a local COVID vaccine candidate that has been developed in Victoria. This candidate, developed by Professor Pouton, will soon undertake phase 1 clinical trials for Australia's first locally developed mRNA COVID vaccine. This candidate has already received $3 million from the Australian government, through the Medical Research Future Fund, to cover the cost of phase 1 trials. However, as I said, a sovereign mRNA capability can't just be about COVID-19, even though that will be its most urgent use. We need this capability to put Australia in the lead in developing other mRNA vaccines and therapeutics. Think of it as building capability in new technologies such as the internet and silicon chips, and look at the industries that they lead to. MRNA is an enabler platform, not just a standalone technology product in itself.

I don't often praise the Victorian government, and for good reason, but I do give credit where credit is due. Five million dollars has recently been given to the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences from the Victorian government's $50 million fund to develop mRNA manufacturing capability in Victoria, and the Victorian government has recently established an agency, mRNA Victoria, with the aim of developing Australia's mRNA capability. While this is a good start, I would encourage the Victorian government to invest further in this endeavour and its associated universities and research institutes and to work with the federal government to establish this capability. Such a project will require deep cooperation of both levels of government and significant government funding. For such a critical pursuit, we must all be willing to work together for the security of our nation.