The race to safely immunise the world's population against COVID-19 won't be over even if an effective vaccine is discovered.
Australia, a commodity-heavy economy with a smaller manufacturing sector, is finding out if it's ready. The task of mass-producing a vaccine, if one is found, presents a set of questions the federal government has started trying to answer.
First, it wants to know how capable and willing Australia's manufacturers are to expand, modify or repurpose their operations to support the local, large-scale production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.
The nation's federal health and industry departments on Monday asked manufacturers to outline their capacity.
A Health Department spokesperson said the request, listed on the government procurement website AusTender, would give it comprehensive and current information on all COVID-19 vaccine and treatment manufacturing capacity and capability in Australia.
Whether the manufacturing sector is able to mass produce a COVID-19 vaccine depends on multiple unknowns, including the nature of the product that emerges from the more than 160 candidates in development around the world, and whether an Australian manufacturer would be prevented from producing it by intellectual property barriers.
Veysel Kayser, an associate professor at the University of Sydney's School of Pharmacy, says at this stage it can only be speculated as to whether Australia's existing manufacturing capacity is going to be enough.
One company to mass-produce a COVID-19 vaccine in Australia could be CSL, formerly the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, a producer of influenza vaccines and a partner to the University of Queensland's promising vaccine search.
If an effective and safe vaccine is developed, CSL has both facilities and expertise to manufacture adequate amounts of vaccines over time, Associate Professor Kayser says.
However, if the vaccine is based on a new platform that CSL doesn't have, then the task of mass-producing it will be slowed as facilities are set up first.
"In fact, most of the vaccine candidates might have similar issues, so this request for information is a timely initiative to know who can do what," he says.
Monash University Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences professor Colin Pouton says Australia does not have manufacturing companies set up to produce mRNA vaccines, nor adenovirus-based DNA delivery systems, both categories among candidates being developed.
Australia should be self-reliant and actually we do have the capacity, highly skilled workforce, and tradition of excellence in R&D to achieve this.Associate Professor Veysel Kayser
However there are pharmaceutical manufacturers with certified good-manufacturing practice facilities that could realign their business to make some of them, Professor Pouton says.
CSL and its influenza vaccine arm Seqirus could make most vaccine products if they are willing to invest in equipment or use government funding, he says.
However, he says there are commercial issues that could have an influence on such realignments.
Associate Professor Kayser says COVID-19 is a completely different virus to influenza.
"We had no previous knowledge about how to go about developing a coronavirus vaccine for human use, and on top of that we don't know which vaccine or vaccines will be successful out of 160 candidates, although only a fraction of these are in clinical trials at the moment," he says.
"I would like to see investing in research for more than one type of vaccine rather than putting all the eggs into the same basket and aim for more than one type of safe and effective vaccine. Having more than one type of vaccine will help to mitigate this problem."
The federal government's call this week to the manufacturing sector for information could be a sign of changing relations with the industry brought about by the coronavirus.
University of Technology Sydney business expert Roy Green says at the beginning of the pandemic there was next to zero co-ordination between the manufacturing sector and the federal government in ensuring there was capacity for the nation to produce the health and protective products needed.
"The government imagined it could import its requirements as it had increasingly been doing over recent years, indeed decades," he says.
"However it became apparent this would not plug the gaps in our local supply chains, firstly because other countries prioritised their own needs and second because some supplies that were identified for imports failed to meet Australian standards."
The coronavirus crisis has shown the vulnerability of a commodity economy to external shocks, he says, and the nation has the capacity to develop a vaccine only because of past government investment in health and medical research.
"We can do more, of course, and what is clearly lacking is investment in research and innovation across manufacturing at the level we find in some parts of health and medical," he says.
"We have a research imbalance which can only get worse if the funding lost from university revenues is not replaced and enhanced."
Associate Professor Kayser says every country will face vaccine shortages if one is discovered, considering the current global capacity is nowhere near enough to produce enough vaccines for more than 7 billion people.
"In my view, Australia should be self-reliant and actually we do have the capacity, highly skilled workforce, and tradition of excellence in R&D to achieve this," he says.
More funding is needed for basic research to improve understanding of emerging infectious diseases and unearth potential vaccine candidates and other therapeutics, he adds. Had more funding been provided for previous research into SARS and other pathogens, he says, the world might have had antivirals or a potential vaccine candidate already.
"Providing more research funding to basic science is very important before the next pandemic, whether it is another coronavirus, influenza or something else."