Companies are being urged to come forward if they can help make cutting edge vaccines for the coronavirus pandemic and other diseases in the future.
The Morrison government has approached the market for a show of interest in manufacturing mRNA vaccines in Australia.
Industry Minister Christian Porter expects it to take more than a year before production is up and running.
There’s a strict list of requirements for the successful candidate, but Mr Porter indicated a group of companies could work together, potentially in a partnership with a university or state government.
“Australians can have great confidence that we will be one of the small handful of countries that will have an early sovereign manufacturing capability for mRNA,” he told reporters in Perth on Friday.
“We’d like to see the best proposals put to government, so we can get the best possible 10-year deal for the Australian population.”
Taxpayers are expected to foot some costs of the process, but Mr Porter would not be drawn on how much or what form it would take.
Mr Porter said the government has already been talking to pharmaceutical giant Moderna about producing its mRNA jabs onshore.
In order to get the tick of approval, companies have to give the government a fully costed approval for a facility that could produce vaccines and other therapeutic goods over the next decade.
They need to show that they could quickly respond to future health emergencies and produce more than 25 million doses, enough for the Australian population.
Doses would have to be made available to the government as required.
Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles said the government should have made the decision last year.
“In the midst of its self-congratulation last year they were complacent in the failure to put Australia properly in the queues of the various vaccine projects around the world,” he said.
“They bet the house on AstraZeneca being able to do the job here, and now what you see in the messaging the government is giving is an almost undermining of people having confidence in AstraZeneca.”
But Mr Porter said the government’s approach would result in the best deal for the taxpayer.
The mRNA vaccines teach cells how to make a protein to trigger an immune response.
Moderna and Pfizer are leading examples.
The mRNA technology has the potential to treat many other conditions including cancer and cardiovascular disease.
But Australia does not have the domestic capacity to manufacture such a vaccine.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is warming to the idea after previously dismissing the emerging technology as mere “science fiction”.
He said the purpose was not just to deliver coronavirus vaccines.
“What we’ve seen with the mRNA vaccines is they are the new technology, they are the new way of doing vaccines around the world,” Mr Morrison said.
“Eighteen months ago, apart from some trial treatments in HIV, this was largely science fiction.”
He said the government would move quickly to establish the manufacturing plants.
Submissions are open for eight weeks.