Australia’s CSL warns drugmakers not to rush Covid-19 vaccine

Safe distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine to billions of people could pose a significant challenge, the head of Australia’s biggest drugmaker has warned, who expects that at least one such product should be ready within a year.

Paul Perreault, chief executive of CSL, urged the pharmaceutical industry not to rush out a vaccine and said that more collaboration was needed to lay the ground for manufacturing and distributing a final product.

Melbourne-based CSL is behind one of the more than 100 Covid-19 vaccines currently in development and is also working on treatments using blood plasma, a specialism for the company. A rally in its shares meant it briefly overtook BHP as Australia’s most valuable listed company earlier in the year.

“Everybody wants to get everybody to speed up and try to get rid of red tape,” Mr Perreault told the Financial Times. “But a reason that some of that tape is there is for safety purposes, when you know you’re going to have to be giving billions of doses of this vaccine, you want to make sure you’re doing the right thing.”

Among the other companies working toward a vaccine candidate are Germany’s BioNTech, the UK’s AstraZeneca and US-based Moderna. In May, the head of US pharmaceutical group Merck cast doubt on a vaccine being available within 18 months.

“We’re not racing against each other, we’re racing against the disease,” Mr Perreault said.

He warned of severe consequences from pushing out a product without thorough preparation, highlighting a dengue fever vaccine developed by Sanofi Pasteur that was given to 1m children in the Philippines in 2016. Its distribution was halted a year later after it transpired that in rare cases the vaccination could trigger potentially fatal cases of dengue. 

Mr Perreault also pointed to complications with an H1N1 vaccine in 2009, which suffered production and distribution delays that curbed its effectiveness.

“It’s not just making the vaccine components, but then what do you put [them] in?,” he said. “Who has the vials? Who has the stoppers? Who has the syringes? How are you going to be able to put it into the vials, and then what about distribution?”

CSL has collaborated with University of Queensland on its vaccine candidate. Mr Perreault said if the vaccine proved effective the company would price it at a level that recoups its costs but it would not seek to make a profit. “We’re not going to be gouging people for a vaccine — that’s not CSL. That is not our culture.”

CSL was founded more than a century ago as a government laboratory and developed a vaccine for the Spanish flu during the 1918 pandemic. It has risen to become one of the world’s largest biotech companies and a leader in flu treatments and plasma protein therapies.

The company’s shares have rallied 40 per cent in the last year to give CSL a market capitalisation of about $93bn. Jun Bei Liu, a fund manager at Sydney-based Tribeca Investment Partners, said the company was set to benefit from strong demand for its immunoglobulin products — which are based on antibodies produced by blood plasma — and supply shortages at competitors Grifols and Takeda.

“Add to this CSL’s expanding flu vaccines business in an environment of dramatically rising demand along with a stake in a possible Covid-19 vaccine,” she added.

In addition to a vaccine, CSL is developing a plasma product that could help treat patients with serious complications from Covid-19 prior to them being placed on a ventilator.

The treatment, on which human trials have begun, is derived from plasma donations by people who have recovered from the virus and have a high level of Covid-19 antibodies.

Mr Perreault said it should be available sooner than a vaccine, possibly by the end of the year.

One risk could be a shortage in the global supply of plasma, which CSL needs to produce its treatments, as the coronavirus has disrupted blood donations in the US. “This will have an impact on CSL but we will still grow . . . it won’t be the death of the company,” he added.