Vaccine maker Moderna looks to tap into local research talent

The chief medical officer of coronavirus vaccine maker Moderna says there is scope for its COVID-19 booster shots to be made onshore in future and the company will look to leverage Australia’s research talent to make new products.

© Getty Airport workers unload pallets of the first shipment of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine as it arrives in Australia.

Speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age hours after the first doses of Moderna’s COVID vaccine landed in Australia, Dr Paul Burton said the company was progressing talks with the federal government about domestic manufacturing and would look to recruit more local research talent.

“I think there is amazing science in Australia, really fantastic basic scientific and clinical research, I’ve seen that first hand,” Dr Burton said.

“We’re putting our head of Asia Pacific Medical Affairs in Australia – so at least for my part, I think we’re going to try to build out the team there.”

Moderna filed documents with the corporate regulator back in May to set up operations in Australia and has since advertised a number of local roles for its medical affairs team.

The company has been in discussions with the federal government about the possibility of onshore manufacturing, but no decisions have been made.

Dr Burton, who joined Moderna as chief medical officer in June after leaving a senior executive role at Johnson & Johnson, said that if the company successfully negotiated an onshore manufacturing agreement in Australia it would be possible to make booster shots of Moderna’s vaccine here.

“Absolutely – I mean, we have announced that kind of association in Canada – and that’s exactly the kind of thing [a manufacturing deal] is intended to do,” Dr Burton said.

The company has submitted data for the product to the US FDA and European medicines regulator.

Moderna had not brought a product to market before the pandemic, but has grown into a $US173 billion company through its successful use of messenger-RNA technology to make COVID-19 vaccines.

The biotech also has a broad pipeline of other research projects, including cancer vaccines and cardiovascular treatments as well as plans for a combined influenza and coronavirus vaccine.

Dr Burton said there was strong potential for the company to work with Australian researchers on these projects and potentially undertake trials of the COVID-influenza vaccine here.

“It [flu] is a seasonal disease so as the Southern Hemisphere goes into winter, we’d definitely be looking to do research and Australia is a great centre for us,” he said.

“We have a whole rare diseases research and development team – cardiovascular, auto-immune and then cancer… I think the expertise in those areas in Australia is remarkable.”

The company’s top priority at the moment is delivering doses of its original coronavirus vaccine across globe. The first shipment of Australia’s Moderna doses arrived overnight, with 1 million doses expected to land in September and then 3 million in October, November and December.

An additional 15 million doses of “booster or variant-specific” vaccines will be delivered throughout 2022. Dr Burton said timing of deliveries would depend on the state of the nation’s rollout.

Australia is on its way to hitting its 70 per cent vaccination target, with 81.2 per cent of New South Wales residents having received a first dose, while 70.5 per cent of Victorians have had one shot.

Dr Burton said those numbers are figures “the country should be proud of”, but cautioned that the battle against the pandemic is far from over.

“It is a war that we’re in. We’ve won many battles, but I think looking forward, we can’t give up yet, we can’t rest on our laurels. There are still battles to go. This thing is not defeated, it is a very, very fit virus and we still have a road ahead of us,” he said.

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