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Prevention is better than cure.

Friday, 7 August 2020

From the Chief Executive

If the current COVID-19 emergency has proved anything, it is that Australia can be relied on to improvise its way through a crisis.

What it has also demonstrated, however, is that decades of policy penny-pinching means the cost to public health and the public purse is and will be higher than might otherwise have been the case.

From the very beginnings of the COVID-19 emergency, Medicines Australia and the innovative pharmaceutical companies it represents have worked hand in glove with the government to overcome the challenges of stressed global supply chains and international competition for essential medicines to ensure that Australians are getting the pharmaceuticals and therapeutics they need.

Inevitably, though, there are lessons for the future.

The Prime Minister, understandably, talks of the need for greater economic sovereignty, resilience and security once this lethal virus has been contained if not stamped out.

His Industry Minister Karen Andrews is publicly applauding the work of Australian researchers, singling out the CSIRO and the University of Queensland, as part of the global effort to find and develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

She also declares that once a vaccine emerges the government wants to be able to “manufacture it right here in Australia”.

A noble ambition, especially given it is a reality that those nations most deeply involved in the process of development and production of any vaccine will inevitably have easier access to the fruits of that research and investment.

Demand for a vaccine, and indeed for anti-virals, will initially outstrip supply and that means those nations which have more skin in the game will be at the head of the queue.

In the early days of this emergency, the Prime Minister had the foresight to establish the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission to work out how to re-build and revamp the economy post-Coronavirus.

Australia’s record in this area in recent years has been mixed at best.

As a direct result, for example, of the long running government incentive scheme known as Factor F, but dumped in 1998, AstraZeneca has a manufacturing plant in Sydney producing respiratory medicine units exported to 19 countries.

Thanks to the government’s 80 million dollar investment to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Novartis Global will manufacture Kymriah in Australia, an immunocellular therapy individually tailored for each cancer patient.

But these examples are too few and far between.

Most recent figures show that business spending on Research and Development has declined by more than 12 percent over the past decade and that is just one of the indices.

We can and must do better, especially in a post-COVID-19 world likely to be even more uncertain where Australia will be more vulnerable to circumstances beyond its control.

With the right policies and a long term strategic focus, Australia has the potential to upgrade manufacturing and strengthen supply chains to meet some future pandemic needs and respond to a global environment where reliance on medical supplies from other nations is likely to be even riskier than it is in the midst of this emergency.

A good start would be for policy makers to re-examine previously effective policies, notably Factor F, but also the Pharmaceutical Industry Investment Program (PIIP) and the Pharmaceutical Partnership Program (P3) as well as prioritising STEM courses to boost home grown specialist workforces as well as optimising research and development excellence by better integrating academic and industry research.

It is a challenge.

Fortunately, Australia already has a template.

For close to a decade, the Department of Defence Science and Technology has been reviewing the state of Australia’s medical countermeasures (MCM), precisely to ascertain just how well prepared we are with the vaccines, therapeutic and diagnostic technologies to protect against just such a pandemic as we are now struggling to defeat.

In its latest review completed three years ago, the Department concluded that its recommendations of half a decade earlier had yet to be taken up and observed that product development capability “lacks critical mass and is not readily accessible or functionally connected to enable end-to-end MCM product development.”

The audit reiterated its 2012 recommendation for the establishment of “a national MCM initiative directed by government”.

Among its ten highly pertinent recommendations; stimulating “the creation of advanced manufacturing platforms of therapeutics and diagnostics through specialised funding mechanisms.”

Medicines Australia has offered its support to the Commission and the government to examine the opportunities and feasibility of expanding domestic biopharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities and other options.

This is no small ambition.

Australia’s record in this area in recent years has been mixed at best.

As a direct result, for example, of the long running government incentive scheme known as Factor F, but dumped in 1998, AstraZeneca has a manufacturing plant in Sydney producing respiratory medicine units exported to 19 countries.

Thanks to the government’s 80 million dollar investment to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Novartis Global will manufacture Kymriah in Australia, an immunocellular therapy individually tailored for each cancer patient.

But these examples are too few and far between.

Most recent figures show that business spending on Research and Development has declined by more than 12 percent over the past decade and that is just one of the indices.

We can and must do better, especially in a post-COVID-19 world likely to be even more uncertain where Australia will be more vulnerable to circumstances beyond its control.

With the right policies and a long term strategic focus, Australia has the potential to upgrade manufacturing and strengthen supply chains to meet some future pandemic needs and respond to a global environment where reliance on medical supplies from other nations is likely to be even riskier than it is in the midst of this emergency.

A good start would be for policy makers to re-examine previously effective policies, notably Factor F, but also the Pharmaceutical Industry Investment Program (PIIP) and the Pharmaceutical Partnership Program (P3) as well as prioritising STEM courses to boost home grown specialist workforces as well as optimising research and development excellence by better integrating academic and industry research.

It is a challenge.

Fortunately, Australia already has a template.

For close to a decade, the Department of Defence Science and Technology has been reviewing the state of Australia’s medical countermeasures (MCM), precisely to ascertain just how well prepared we are with the vaccines, therapeutic and diagnostic technologies to protect against just such a pandemic as we are now struggling to defeat.

In its latest review completed three years ago, the Department concluded that its recommendations of half a decade earlier had yet to be taken up and observed that product development capability “lacks critical mass and is not readily accessible or functionally connected to enable end-to-end MCM product development.”

The audit reiterated its 2012 recommendation for the establishment of “a national MCM initiative directed by government”.

Among its ten highly pertinent recommendations; stimulating “the creation of advanced manufacturing platforms of therapeutics and diagnostics through specialised funding mechanisms.”

Here is the prescription to boost Australia’s ability to make a genuine contribution towards finding a cure for this pandemic and preventing the need for such drastic economic measures to combat the next.

It is just the wake-up call needed for anyone concerned with Australia’s future sovereignty, security and resilience.

Elizabeth de Somer is Chief Executive Officer of Medicines Australia

 

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