COVID-19 mRNA vaccine pioneer, Moderna, is building a new hub for biotech research and manufacturing in Australia.
The facility in Melbourne’s life-sciences precinct will have the capacity to manufacture up to 100 million vaccine doses per year for respiratory viruses such as COVID, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
In addition, Moderna will establish a new, regional mRNA research centre in Melbourne. This will become a hub for research into respiratory viruses and tropical diseases across the Asia-Pacific.
‘Australia’s science and R&D ecosystem is world-class, and this is one of the reasons we decided to build our first commercial-scale facility in Australia,’ says Michael Azrak, General Manager, Moderna Australia & New Zealand.
‘We want to support a thriving biotech community where the best and brightest have the opportunity to collaborate and contribute to advancing mRNA science,’ he adds.
New biotech facility will create hundreds of jobs
Massachusetts-based Moderna made global headlines in 2021 with its revolutionary mRNA vaccine. mRNA vaccines were critical for combating the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing hospitalisations and saving millions of lives globally.
The success of its COVID vaccine has meant rapid growth for Moderna. In August 2022, the company announced that – in partnership with the Australian and Victorian governments – Melbourne would be the home of a huge, new investment in life-sciences research and manufacturing.
Moderna’s facility will create hundreds of construction jobs, and ongoing roles in manufacturing and research.
This year, Moderna will also establish an Australian fellowship program to advance mRNA science. The program will include facilitating an immersive industry learning experience for bio-pharma innovators, who will be able to travel to Moderna’s Boston headquarters for training and knowledge-sharing activities.
The annual program will offer two fellowships worth A$250,000 each per year.
A top venue for clinical trials in the Asia-Pacific
One significant attraction for Moderna is Australia’s capabilities in early clinical development and clinical trials.
‘Australia is a great place to do clinical trials because Australian clinicians know how to run trials well,’ says Azrak. ‘Australia provides good infrastructure and facilities, regulatory support, medical expertise and a diverse population for trial recruitment.’
Australia is currently a registered trial country for five of Moderna’s ongoing clinical trial studies. These trials include over 40 study sites. They also include the company’s Phase 2 study into a personalised cancer vaccine targeting melanoma.
Azrak reports that Moderna finds it comparatively easy to establish trials networks in Australia and recruit patients.
‘We can collect trial data and get results back to the global study team in a timely way,’ he says. ‘This is partly due to local expertise. Australia is home to high standard contract research organisations (CROs), universities and teaching hospitals that are well-versed with global requirements.’
Government support for advanced bio-pharma science
Moderna leaders say Australia has multiple advantages for ambitious biotech companies. First, the Commonwealth and State Governments are highly supportive.
‘The Victorian Government is very forward thinking in terms of fostering Melbourne’s biotech industry,’ says Azrak. ‘They helped us address regulatory barriers and accelerated our construction plans. Victoria wants to create a local biotech industry that is on par with Boston and Oxford.’
Second, Australia’s A$20 billion Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) supports long-term investment in health and medical research. It channels funding towards innovation and science research in medicine and health care.
‘There are tax incentives for research and development, and the Government’s MRFF is also valuable at providing capital investment,’ says Azrak.
Biomedical research hubs a magnet for investment
One other draw card is local expertise. This includes the emergence of biopharma hubs around major hospitals and universities.
‘Australia is a strong venue for active medical research,’ Azrak says. ‘Australia has world-class institutes, great incubator hubs and excellent teaching hospitals. These facilities are often within walking distance of each other. This helps our biotech experts collaborate with each other.’
He cites the Monash Technology Precinct in Melbourne. This precinct is home to Monash University, the Australian Synchrotron and Commonwealth Scientific and Industry Research Organisation (CSIRO) facilities.
Moderna will contribute to this life-sciences ecocentre with a new research centre, which will spearhead research into respiratory diseases and tropical medicine.
‘Our new Melbourne centre will be a hub for the Asia-Pacific,’ says Azrak. ‘It will link together academic work that’s being done in research institutes across the region – and look at how mRNA treatments can help combat diseases that need medical solutions.’
Globally respected standards
Azrak predicts that Australia has a bright future in biomedical research. Prospects rest on the fact that Australian medical research has an excellent reputation.
‘We have very high standards of care here in Australia – and universal access,’ says Azrak. ‘Australia’s regime for health regulation is so well regarded that it’s used as a reference point in many other countries.
‘Our chief regulator – the TGA [Therapeutic Goods Administration] – is world-class. It applied an innovative lens to new medicines approval during the pandemic. And the TGA’s assessments carry weight across the Asia-Pacific region.’
Support from Austrade and state government agencies
Moderna’s new manufacturing facility is scheduled for completion in 2024. It will be part of an ongoing, 10-year partnership between Moderna, the Victorian Government and the federal Australian Government.
‘Austrade has always been open and supportive – especially during the early stages of discussions,’ says Azrak. ‘The federal and Victorian State governments and mRNA Victoria were also great champions of promoting Australia as a destination for investment.’
‘We think Australia has come on in leaps and bounds in terms of skills and opportunities in the biopharma sector,’ he adds. ‘The focus on life sciences has really expanded in Australia over recent years. Coming here and building a manufacturing facility requires a great skills base – and that’s what we get in Australia.’
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Published: 15 February 2023