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Aussies could get omicron-targeted jab earlier than most

Michael Read
Michael ReadReporter

Australia could become one of the first countries in the world to administer an omicron-specific vaccine, after Moderna confirmed it has finalised its application to the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

The TGA granted Moderna a provisional determination in April for a bivalent jab that provides protection against both the original COVID-19 strain and the omicron variant.

Moderna has finalised its application to medical regulators for an omicron-specific vaccine. Getty

Moderna general manager for Australia and New Zealand, Michael Azrak, told The Australian Financial Review the pharmaceutical giant had since finalised its application to supply its omicron-specific jab in Australia, with the company hopeful of making the new vaccine available as soon as August.

“The TGA submission for our mRNA-1273.214 vaccine has been finalised and is currently under evaluation by the TGA. If approved, the company will be able to supply this new omicron-containing bivalent booster vaccine in early August – putting Australia amongst the first countries in the world to have access to this new COVID-19 vaccine,” Mr Azrak said.

He said Moderna was having “constructive discussions” with the Australian government regarding the supply of the omicron-booster.

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“The company has commenced manufacturing this new bivalent vaccine at scale,” Mr Azrak said.

Should Moderna’s new vaccine be approved by both the TGA and the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, the company will be able to provide supply within weeks, subject to negotiations with the federal government.

Moderna announced new clinical data last week that showed its omicron-specific booster elicited significantly higher neutralising antibody responses against omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 compared to its existing COVID-19 vaccine.

Original vaccines not sufficient

Deakin University epidemiologist Catherine Bennett said omicron was sufficiently different to previous variants that immune systems struggle to identify it, even if a person has received a full course of an existing COVID-19 vaccine.

“It’s a sufficient shift in the structure of the virus, which means our immunity doesn’t cover it as well,” Professor Bennett told the Financial Review.

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“Even though the [omicron-specific vaccines] we’re developing were based on BA.1, the BA.4 and BA.5 [strains] are still more similar to BA.1 than to the ancestral strains that our original vaccines are built on.

“It should give us a stronger response … and that will not only bring down even further risk of serious illness, but should also give us better protection from infection.”

Pfizer is also working on two of its own omicron-specific vaccines, which the TGA granted provisional determination for this month.

It means the company has six months to apply for provisional registration, with a spokeswoman for Pfizer for telling The Australian Financial Review the pharmaceutical giant would submit clinical data to the TGA “in the coming months”.

Australia will receive 85 million doses of Pfizer in 2022 and 2023, with 60 million vaccines to be delivered in the current year and 25 million scheduled for next year.

The Pfizer spokeswoman told the Financial Review the terms of the supply agreement include potential adapted versions of the vaccine such as the omicron-specific jab, if required and authorised.

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“Timing of delivery would vary based on individual supply agreements with each country and their specific regulatory authorisation timelines,” she said.

Health Minister Mark Butler told the Financial Review he had “encouraging discussions” with both Pfizer and Moderna about the challenges of the new sub-variants.

“My department is in negotiations to ensure we have the future supplies we need, including for under five-year-olds and the variant vaccines,” Mr Butler said.

“I have also engaged Jane Halton to undertake an independent review of Australia’s vaccine and treatment procurements to make sure we have the vaccines we need when we need them, and the vaccine orders we’ve inherited are fit for purpose.”

Michael Read reports from the federal press gallery at Parliament House. He writes on financial services, politics and health. He was previously an economist at the Reserve Bank of Australia and at UBS. Connect with Michael on Twitter. Email Michael at michael.read@afr.com.au

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