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What Supply Chain Challenges Will Australia Face With The COVID-19 Vaccine?

An analysis by the Australian National University found that three-in-five Australians definitely want a coronavirus vaccine once it becomes available. But what supply chain difficulties lie ahead?

Results from phase three of Pfizer’s ongoing coronavirus vaccine study indicate that its vaccine shots are 95% effective and will successfully protect those who are most at risk of dying from COVID-19 – namely, the elderly. Pfizer’s medical trial of over 43,000 people saw just 170 volunteers contract coronavirus, of which 162 had received a placebo shot.

The vaccine’s ability to safeguard older people is particularly important. In Australia, those aged over 65 accounts for 20% of the country’s coronavirus cases but almost 50% of ICU admissions and over 95% of deaths.

How quickly will the Pfizer vaccine be approved?

American multinational pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer developed the vaccine alongside German partner BioNTec and plans are now in place to submit the latest findings to regulatory agencies across the globe and to a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

This process will begin with an application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to seek approval for emergency use of their vaccine. Other bodies will then be approached, which will include the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia. If all goes to plan, the companies could produce as many as 50 million vaccine doses in 2020 and 1.3 billion in 2021.

Pfizer and BioNTec might have been first off the mark, but several other vaccine developments in the making look set to deliver before the end of this year.

  • Last week, data from Moderna’s late-stage study revealed its vaccine to be 94.5% effective.
  • AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford plan to release vaccine data in November or December.
  • Johnson & Johnson had revealed plans to deliver data by the end of this year.

This is the news everyone has desperately hoped for all year. However, while most definitely a light at the end of a very long tunnel, the process of supplying the vaccine across the globe won’t be without its challenges.

The challenge of getting COVID-19 vaccines to Australians

As of the beginning of this month, the Australian government has secured four COVID-19 vaccine deals. This includes an investment of $1.5 billion in Pfizer and Novavax, as well as deals with the University of Queensland, and Oxford University and AstraZeneca’s vaccine. These deals could give Australia four vaccines to choose from and up to 134 million doses.

But the biggest challenge will be transporting approved vaccines to Australian soil. Take the Pfizer vaccine for example, for which the Australian government has invested in 10 million doses. This vaccine must be frozen at –70 degrees and can be stored at four degrees for a maximum of 24 hours before going off. In all likelihood, the vaccines will need to be supplied from a small number of distribution centers that have the capacity to preserve them at the correct temperature.

Australia doesn’t have the necessary mRNA technology to locally manufacture this type of cold-chain vaccine, which means it will need to be manufactured overseas before being transported and distributed at this temperature. This will prove especially challenging in more remote areas. According to The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, cold chain vaccine breaches have cost the country more than $25.9 million between 2014 and 2019.

Last Thursday, Pfizer Australia managing director Anne Harris commented that the organisation had “detailed logistical plans” in place to support effective vaccine transport, storage, and continuous temperature monitoring. Another Pfizer Australia source revealed that the company was exploring the use of several manufacturing sites in the U.S. and Europe.

Some are urging the Australian government to invest in mRNA technology, which is predicted to be the next big thing for a range of vaccines and therapies, including for some cancer treatments.

Investment in this tech would enable vaccines to be manufactured on Australian soil, addressing many of the present logistical concerns. Brendan Murphy, the Department of Health secretary, confirmed the government was exploring this as an option.

Other key supply chain challenges surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine include:

  • The provision of additional training for healthcare workers to minimise vaccine wastage.
  • Insufficient supplies of syringes and needles.
  • Insufficient supplies of packaging and filling, which are necessary for ensuring the vaccines are safely stored and transported.
  • Scaling-up manufacturing capacity.

It’s predicted that the restrictions and supply chain challenges associated with supplying the vaccine to Australia could result in a delay of up to a year.

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