With AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine deal in the bag, Australia looks to CSL for production help

Australia is wrapping up talks to produce AstraZeneca's University of Oxford-partnered COVID-19 vaccine through the country's shot manufacturing firm CSL. (GettyImages/Shannon Stent)

With an AstraZeneca vaccine deal confirmed and negotiations ongoing with other shot-makers, the Australian government is looking to domestic manufacturer CSL Behring to churn out supplies. CSL has already partnered with the University of Queensland on its own vaccine hopeful and snared a deal with CEPI to further that work.  

Australia said Tuesday that it had struck a deal with AstraZeneca to supply enough shots for the country's entire population of 25 million. Financial terms weren't released, but under the pact, the Australian government will churn out shots in-country and supply them free of charge, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

Should AstraZeneca's vaccine win out in the clinic, Australia plans to "manufacture and supply vaccines straight away under [its] own steam," Morrison said. A final agreement on pricing is expected later.

Indeed, Health Minister Greg Hunt said earlier this week that Australia plans to produce the "vast majority" of any licensed COVID vaccines through Melbourne-based CSL, with 30 potential sites under review for the eventual production work. CSL also runs a national reserve facility, Hunt said in an interview with Sky News, which provides enough capacity to make vaccine candidates for Australia's entire population. 

But CSL has prior commitments as well, and while the company plans to support other COVID-19 vaccine production, the University of Queensland's program remains its top priority, a spokesperson said via email. 

"[W]e are currently in discussions with AstraZeneca and the Australian Government to assess whether it is possible to provide local manufacturing support for the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, should it prove successful, while protecting our commitment to the UQ vaccine," the spokesperson said. "We are assessing the viability of options ranging from the fill and finish of bulk product imported to Australia through to manufacture of the vaccine candidate under license." 

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CSL's expertise fits right in with the AstraZeneca candidate, which is produced in mammalian cells. The company's Broadmeadows plant in Melbourne is already set up for mammalian cell production of recombinant protein therapies, the company said, and talks are ongoing with AstraZeneca to work through technology transfers. 

As for the University of Queensland shot, CSL boasts enough capacity to supply doses for the whole of Australia, plus some neighboring regions. The company aims to turn out up to 100 million doses of the Queensland vaccine by the end of 2021, and will scale up production under a recent deal with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. CSL will also outsource some of its shot production work to contract manufacturers to increase dose volume. 

The University of Queensland candidate, a "molecular clamp"-based shot, uses a proprietary adjuvant from CSL; the company has been working closely with researchers there to shore up supplies ahead of approval.

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Meanwhile, Australia is in advanced discussions with other pharmaceutical companies to lock down vaccine supply, Hunt said Sunday, and it has signed two nondisclosure agreements with potential suppliers.

Plus, Morrison said the country would set a target of 95% vaccination, with the expectation that the final approved shot would be "as mandatory as you could possibly make it."