Health Department Secretary Brendan Murphy says CSL was never set to be a "long-term manufacturer of AstraZenaca".(Supplied: CSL)

MELBOURNE, 15 OCTOBER 2021 (ABC)—The federal opposition and aid groups are urging the government to extend its contract with biotech giant CSL to manufacture more AstraZeneca vaccines in Melbourne, saying Australia should ramp up production next year to help vanquish the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt confirmed this morning the government would not renew its contract with CSL beyond the 51 million doses the company had already promised to deliver.

The company was expected to wind up production of AstraZeneca in Australia early next year.

CSL’s Melbourne plant is now producing around a million doses a week, with up to 800,000 being sent overseas to bolster vaccine rollouts in the Pacific and South-East Asia.

But Hunt said the government would not extend its contract with CSL, suggesting the company had commitments to manufacture other medicines and vaccines.

“The contract is being delivered in full, the doses are being shared, but it was only ever going to be one of the methods [for vaccine supply] and it was never contemplated that CSL would become a contract manufacturer,” he said.

Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong called the decision “bewildering”.

She said the government should ramp up domestic production of AstraZeneca beyond the end of the current contract, and send the doses to regional countries that still need to vaccinate millions of citizens.

Several countries in South-East Asia — including Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam — have been grappling with devastating COVID outbreaks, although all three nations have managed to radically reduce case numbers in recent weeks.

“We know what is happening in Indonesia, we know the severity of the Delta outbreak in Indonesia,” Senator Wong said.

“We know that Indonesia needs more vaccines, why we wouldn’t keep producing these and ensure that our region is more secure?

“It’s just short-sighted.”

Extending the contract or striking a new one would require the government to reach agreement with both CSL and AstraZeneca.

A spokesperson for CSL said the company was “fully focused on the manufacture of the 50 million contracted doses, which will continue into next year, and would assess any further requests following the completion of this”.

The company estimates it has now produced more than 20 million of the 51 million doses it has agreed to deliver.

Health Department Secretary Brendan Murphy told a parliamentary committee this morning CSL was “only ever doing this as a one-off” and was “never going to be a long-term manufacturer of AstraZeneca”.

Around 12.5 million AstraZeneca doses have been administered to Australians, while more than 3.5 million doses have so far been sent to countries in the Pacific and South-East Asia.

Australia’s regional vaccine rollout is expected to ramp up in coming weeks.

Professor Murphy said the government had now committed a total of 40 million doses to overseas countries and a “significant portion” of that would be drawn from the 30 million or so doses that AstraZeneca was still planning to produce.

Still, aid and civil society groups say it makes no sense for the government to end production in Melbourne while COVID-19 continues to ravage the globe.

They are pressing the government to ramp up its ambition to help bring the pandemic under control.

Spokesman for the End COVID For All campaign, Reverend Tim Costello, said the government should “invest in production domestic capability to produce 50-100 million vaccines to sell at cost to South-East Asia”.

“We should not forego a capability that our region needs. Domestic production gives us the upper hand against an uncertain global market and fragmented supply chains,” he said in a statement.

“This decision forecloses the option to donate vaccines to COVAX or share more future doses with the region. The Pacific and South-East Asia will need more vaccines and for a number of reasons, including stability, ease of transport and price, AZ is a highly effective option for the region.

“Why sell ourselves short on building a healthier region and stronger partnerships?”

In addition to the 40 million doses already committed, the government has pledged to supply a further 20 million vaccines to the region through UNICEF.

It’s also committed $100 million (US$74 million) to an initiative from the “Quad” countries — the United States, Japan, India and Australia — to roll out around 1.2 billion vaccine doses in the Indo-Pacific.

The government remains confident it can achieve close to full vaccine coverage of the Pacific through its existing commitments, although widespread vaccine resistance and poor health infrastructure in some countries — particularly Papua New Guinea — present formidable challenges.

In contrast, Fiji has now vaccinated more than 80 per cent of its eligible population, largely using COVID-19 vaccines donated by Australia.

The vaccine rollout is also gathering pace in countries like Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, although there are still some significant obstacles.

Solomon Islands Health Minister Culwick Togamana told the ABC his country “should be able to cover the target eligible population” thanks to vaccines supplied by other countries, and that his country was grateful to Australia for its “generous” supply of doses.

Papua New Guinea Health Minister Jelta Wong said his country had not been “officially informed” about the government’s plans for the CSL contract, but said he was confident Australia would “continue to provide vaccines to PNG, whether manufactured in Australia or purchased internationally”.

“It’s a strong commitment and understanding we have with the Australian government,” he said……PACNEWS

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