‘Pretty striking’: Pfizer results prompt calls for Australian investment in new technology

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Strong early results from Pfizer and BioNTech's phase 3 coronavirus vaccine trial have been welcomed by local vaccine experts, promoting renewed calls for Australia to invest in new types of vaccine manufacturing technology.

Pfizer and BioNTech announced a first interim analysis of the vaccine’s phase 3 study overnight, finding it was more than 90 per cent effective in protecting participants. This was calculated after interim analysis saw 94 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and found the "case split between vaccinated individuals and those who received the placebo indicates a vaccine efficacy rate above 90 per cent, at seven days after the second dose".

Pfizer’s product is set for Australian shores next year. Credit:Bloomberg

The companies have agreed to supply 10 million doses of the product to Australia, confirming they had inked a deal with the Australian government with deliveries planned in 2021.

Pfizer and BioNTech's product uses an mRNA technology, a new type of vaccine making that delivers a "messenger RNA" sequence with genetic instructions to prompt the body's own cells to generate an immune response to the virus.

If companies such as Pfizer can successfully bring these mRNA products to market they will be the first of their kind in the world. Australia does not have capacity to make mRNA vaccines, so Pfizer's products would be likely to be imported.

It’s incredibly promising — to have a level like 90 per cent efficacy is quite remarkable. I had been hopeful of 60 per cent. Ninety per cent is pretty striking.

Vaccine experts have urged the government to invest in these types of manufacturing technologies to secure Australia’s future supply needs, and these calls were renewed on Tuesday morning.

Vaccines like Pfizer's must be stored at very low temperatures during transportation, posing supply chain challenges when importing the product.

Vice chancellor's research fellow and vaccine researcher at RMIT Dr Kylie Quinn said it would be wise for Australia to plan for mRNA production. "If we invest in infastructure now, it’s investing in pandemic preparedness."

Dr Quinn said while the results were only an interim analysis, they were heartening.

"It’s incredibly promising — to have a level like 90 per cent efficacy is quite remarkable. I had been hopeful of 60 per cent. Ninety per cent is pretty striking."

She warned there were still key unknowns about the results, however, including how long the protection against the virus might last and whether some cohorts of trial participants may not be seeing benefits from the vaccine.

"We still have a cohort of people getting infected. We don't know what their characteristics are yet."

Australia's deal with Pfizer and another supply agreement with Novavax for different vaccine product bring the total number of formal vaccine supply deals to four.

The Pfizer product, known as BNT162b2, has already been granted a provisional determination by Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration, which paves the way for Pfizer to apply for a provisional registration of the product.

Biotechnology giant CSL has agreed to produce the Oxford and AstraZeneca vaccine if successful and began this process on Monday. CSL will also make the University of Queensland's vaccine if it passes trials.

World markets rallied on news of Pfizer's results and the local sharemarket shared in the sugar rush, with the ASX 200 up 2.2 per cent at the open.

Investors have also been quick to caution that despite enthusiasm for the early data, there will still be plenty of hurdles on the path to getting the product to market.

"The results have come in after day 28, so the long-term duration of the vaccine is still not known, so the vaccine protection is hard to quantify," said cross-asset specialist at Fidelity, Anthony Doyle.

"This was [also] not a challenge trial — patients are not exposed to the virus to see if they have strong immunity."

Pfizer Australia has been contacted for further comment.

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