Julie Phillips leads a group attempting to save from closure one of Australia’s largest pharmaceutical plants and repurpose it to produce Covid-19 vaccines. Here she explains that with Covid-19 not going away anytime soon, now is the time to act and create new capabilities.
GSK‘s largest southern hemisphere pharmaceutical and vaccine manufacturing plant in Boronia, Victoria, will be shut down by the end of 2022 and the site is currently for sale.
Australia is desperate to increase its onshore pharmaceutical manufacturing capability, including for vaccines, and also to grow its skilled workforce for high value pharmaceutical manufacturing.
Boronia’s specialised and comprehensive infrastructure and skilled employees are obvious assets for Australia to retain, especially since reproducing the facility and workforce would take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
So we have formed a syndicate under our subsidiary company, Opal Biosciences Ltd, chaired by mining heavyweight Hugh Morgan AC, and have approached GSK and the federal government for help to try to do this.
The pandemic confirmed that Australia relies increasingly on imports of pharmaceuticals and vaccines.
Today Australia has only one vaccine manufacturer – CSL – that can produce at population-scale, and while it is excellent at this, its capacity is limited.
We know already that facilities for development and early-stage manufacture of vaccines from Australia’s world class medical research are scarce, forcing us to go overseas to access them.
It is also apparent that COVID is not necessarily going away soon, and that different vaccines will be needed to address variants.
One option to tackle this is to import bulk vaccine.
But the gap then is the final manufacturing step: fill and finish. Boronia specialises in this work and, subject to necessary approvals and licences, be agnostic to vaccine type, giving Australia flexibility to change vaccine suppliers.
And there is more – Boronia is a ‘centre of excellence’ for Blow-Fill-Seal (BFS) technology – using this sterile filling process for more than 30 years.
It has significant capacity – 11 BFS machines which could produce more than 400 million units per annum. BFS can be used in an proprietary integrated injection system to produce single use disposable injections.
Boronia has licences to and currently manufactures sterile products and vaccines. The site has excellent storage and distribution capability for pharmaceuticals including a large cold chain capability. It has extensive existing support services including analytical, microbiology, warehousing, security, operating system, energy generation and stability rooms.
And very importantly, it supports around 300 highly skilled jobs and an estimated three times more through complementary service support roles.
All this would need to be re-established at significant cost at a greenfield site, if Boronia was not retained.
Our big vision is to keep skilled jobs and grow Australia’s sovereign manufacturing capabilities for population-scale vaccines and sterile products for the local market and export.
It would also provide a precinct for SME’s and researchers to develop their products and manufacture pilot to larger scale batches to commercialise local research; and provide training and internship positions.
In our view the opportunity is too good to let go.
Julie Phillips is CEO of biopharmaceutical company BioDiem Ltd and of Opal Biosciences. She is an experienced executive, a member of the innovation advisory committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council, and a former Chairman of industry body AusBiotech.
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