Inside the mRNA vaccine lab that is coming to Australia

moderna Mar 18, 2022

Boston: In a sprawling campus about 40 kilometres from downtown Boston, four biotech workers are gathered around a laboratory computer, making a vaccine that is changing the world.

Dressed in white medical coats, blue scrubs and mesh hairnets, they’re poring over sequencing numbers on a big screen, examining batch records, and synthesising the technology that is being used to combat COVID-19: messenger ribonucleic acid, better known as mRNA.

The Moderna plant in Norwood, Boston, will be the template for Australia’s first mRNA manufacturing plant.

“MRNA is the software of life,” says Moderna’s chief technical operations and quality officer, Juan Andres, during an exclusive tour of the company, which is about to set up a similar state-of-the-art production plant in Australia.

“We believe the sky’s the limit.”

Victoria will soon become the first place in the southern hemisphere to manufacture mRNA vaccines, thanks to an agreement between Moderna, the Victorian government and the Commonwealth.

The company is expected to pick one of two shortlisted greenfield sites in Melbourne for its expansion into Australia as early as next month, according to Victorian Innovation Minister Jaala Pulford, giving Australians direct access to domestically manufactured mRNA vaccines.

Put simply, mRNA teaches our cells how to make copies of the spike protein that will trigger an immune response to fight off the illness.

By the time the facility opens in 2024, it will be capable of producing about 100 million doses of mRNA vaccines a year, not only to combat coronaviruses but also future pandemics and other diseases.

The move is a boon for Australia, whose vaccine rollout last year was plagued in part because it was at the mercy of stretched global markets when trying to procure COVID-19 vaccines.

Now - more than a year after scientists and medical researchers began lobbying the Morrison government to establish a home-grown facility to reduce the country’s reliance on offshore producers and avoid potential supply chain delays - a deal has been inked.

The template for Australia’s first mRNA production plant is Moderna’s $110 million manufacturing lab in the Massachusetts town of Norwood, in greater Boston, which opened in July 2018 as the company sought to expand its offerings of therapeutic drugs.

Today, it has about 44 products in the pipeline, Andres says, including some in clinical studies and trials to combat HIV, respiratory syncytial virus, cancer and cystic fibrosis.

But it’s the COVID-19 vaccine and booster that helped bring in $US17.7 billion ($24.6 billion) in sales last year, and changed the game for the 11-year-old company, whose main mRNA rival is the 173-year-old pharma powerhouse, Pfizer.

Moderna biotech workers in the company’s mRNA lab in Norwood, greater Boston.

This week – as case numbers rose in Victoria partly due to a new coronavirus sub-variant – Pulford travelled to Boston to take her first look at the Norwood facility and meet the officials who will be responsible for setting up the company in Melbourne.

“This is a really significant initiative because we won’t just have COVID vaccine manufacturing, we’ll also have a really exciting research pipeline that goes to the frontiers of curing all sorts of awful diseases and illnesses,” she told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

“I think there’s also an amazing opportunity for some people from Moderna’s operations here in the US to come and be a part of our amazing ecosystem in Victoria, and also for our people to come on [scientific] exchange here.”

Located on what was once a Polaroid plant in the 1970s and ’80s, Moderna took a punt on the Norwood facility long before December 30, 2019, when the International Society for Infectious Diseases posted an alarming report online. Numerous people in Wuhan, China, had been diagnosed with “unexplained pneumonia” potentially coming from a market that sold live animals, prompting fears that the strain had jumped from bats to humans.

Ten days later, Chinese scientists posted the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Moderna, which had been working on mRNA for years, was well positioned. Within weeks, the company had made its first small trial batch of a relevant vaccine.

Then US president Donald Trump sponsored “Operation Warp Speed” to fast track COVID-19 vaccine development in 2020. CREDIT:AP

While then US president Donald Trump would eventually push health authorities to fast-track the process under his aptly titled program, Operation Warp Speed, it took a while for his administration to understand the urgency of the pandemic.

Andres distinctly recalls a meeting in Washington in January 2020, where he and Moderna chief executive Stephane Bancel told American officials they needed to get the vaccine out to market by the end of the year.

“They laughed out loud, saying it would take a minimum of three years to get it done,” he says. “And we said: ‘No, we need to get it done by the end of the year and we need your help.’ But we were nobodies back then.”

Much has clearly changed since. Today, Moderna has sites in Europe and plans in place for facilities in Kenya – to supply the African continent – and possibly Canada.

Pulford says the Victorian plant will create up to 500 jobs during construction, and a further 500 ongoing roles across the industry.

“This is a testament to Victoria’s place as the biotech centre of the southern hemisphere — and that’s not happened by accident,” she says.

“We have brilliant research institutes, we have exceptional universities, and those things are, and have always been, a magnet for talent.”

By Farrah Tomazin

CONTINUED:

Construction will soon begin on Australia’s first mRNA manufacturing facility

Moderna is expected to begin construction on an advanced mRNA manufacturing plant in Melbourne as early as next month, after Jaala Pulford MP travels to Boston to ink the final deal.

Coming soon to Australia. Photo: Moderna
mRNA is ‘the future’ of disease prevention.

DEAL SIGNED

Victoria will soon become the first place in the southern hemisphere to manufacture mRNA vaccines, thanks to an agreement between Moderna, the Victorian government and the Commonwealth.

More than a year after scientists and medical researchers began lobbying the Morrison government to establish a home-grown facility to reduce the country’s reliance on offshore producers, a deal has finally been inked.

Moderna is expected to pick one of two shortlisted greenfield sites in Melbourne for its expansion into Australia as early as next month, according to reports.

Victorian Innovation Minister, Jaala Pulford, says the new deal will give Australians direct access to domestically manufactured mRNA vaccines.

Pulford travelled to Boston last week to take her first look at the Moderna facility and to meet the officials who will be responsible for setting up the company in Melbourne.

Pulford says with the new deal inked, the Victorian plant will soon create up to 500 jobs during construction, and a further 500 ongoing roles across the industry.

“This is a testament to Victoria’s place as the biotech centre of the southern hemisphere — and that’s not happened by accident,” she said.

“We have brilliant research institutes, we have exceptional universities, and those things are, and have always been, a magnet for talent.”

Pulford has been a regular character behind the scenes driving Australia’s ‘technological innovation’ towards mRNA, not just for COVID vaccines, but for a plethora of diseases moving forward.

The Andrews government members was spotted earlier this month at the Doherty Institute, who are interestingly now calling on blood donors to come forward both before and after booster vaccination.

The Victorian Government announced last year a $50 million investment in new critical manufacturing technology and research to provide certainty of supply of new vaccines and lifesaving treatments in Australia.

By the time the facility opens in 2024, it will be capable of producing about 100 million doses of mRNA vaccines a year and is also predicted to ‘safeguard Australia’ from future pandemics and other diseases.

Moderna’s entry into manufacturing in Australia means the country will eventually have two cutting-edge vaccine manufacturing plants in Melbourne, the second being CSL’s $800 million cell-based flu vaccine facility, which is set to be ready by mid-2026.

NOW HIRING

Messenger-RNA (mRNA) is a type of vaccine technology first pioneered in COVID vaccines where the vaccine delivers genetic ‘blueprints’ to cells to teach the body to fight a disease, unlike traditional vaccines, which contain a weak or inactive form of a virus.

Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine is its first commercial product, but the Massachusetts-based biotech has long been focused on using mRNA technology for a range of medical treatments.

Earlier this week, the company outlined its global health strategy, pledging to launch vaccine programs for 15 diseases that pose a particular threat to low and middle income countries by 2025.

This includes work on vaccines for HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.

To this end, the company will soon embark on a hiring spree to ensure it has enough talent to staff the new Melbourne facility, according to reports.

The company will also be speaking to Australian universities about its current and future talent needs.

The company has since launched a program called ‘mRNA Access’, which will let medical researchers use Moderna’s technology platform as part of their own work on medicines for neglected diseases.

Moderna managing director for Australia and New Zealand, Michael Azrak, says Australia’s medical research landscape had influenced his company’s decision to set up shop here and that there were already advanced discussions with academic institutes about how they could use mRNA Access.

“We do want to definitely look at Australia as a key country for our clinical trial platform.”

“We will have the need for quite a number of science grads and PhDs,” he said.

“The plant is a 10-year partnership. It is going to be very, very heavily dependent on highly educated modern manufacturing graduates.”

A very telling quote about what is coming to Australia.

Based off of the existing multi-million dollar Moderna manufacturing plant in Boston, this new facility in Melbourne will transform Australian medicine for generations to come.

THE MODEL

The template for Australia’s first mRNA production plant is Moderna’s $110 million manufacturing lab in the Massachusetts town of Norwood, in greater Boston, which opened in July 2018 as the company sought to expand its offerings of therapeutic drugs.

Located on what was once a Polaroid plant in the 1970s and ’80s, Moderna took over the facility.

MRNA is the software of life,” says Moderna’s chief technical operations and quality officer, Juan Andres, who is set to set up a similar state-of-the-art production plant in Australia.

“We believe the sky’s the limit.”

Today, the company about 44 products in the pipeline, Andres says, including some in clinical studies and trials to combat HIV, respiratory syncytial virus, cancer and cystic fibrosis.

But it’s the COVID-19 vaccine and booster that helped bring in US $17.7 billion ($24.6 billion) in sales last year.

Michael Azrak says the company will continue to focus on respiratory virus vaccines, and is hopeful it can develop a combination shot that would be useful as COVID-19 becomes an ‘endemic’.

By TOTT News

CONTINUED:

Australia Secures 10-Year Deal With Moderna to Produce mRNA Vaccines in Victoria

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (R) and Victorian Deputy Premier James Merlino (C) tour The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, Australia, with Dr Julian Druce, head of the Virus Identification Lab (M) on Dec. 14, 2021. Andrew Henshaw/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The Australian government has finalised a 10-year partnership agreement with Moderna and the state government of Victoria to manufacture mRNA COVID-19 vaccines and other mRNA vaccines in the state.

“This is an Australian made shot in the arm that will protect Australians from future pandemics and secure a new manufacturing capability right here on our shores,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on March 24.

The $1.5 billion (US$1.12 million) Moderna Manufacturing Strategy will see Australia produce up to 100 million mRNA doses every year in a bid to protect against new COVID-19 strains or new respiratory diseases.

Under the agreement, Australia is expected to get a guaranteed vaccine supply over the long term as well as vaccine options for COVID-19, the flu, COVID-19 with flu, along with other respiratory viruses.

The mRNA production facility will be one of the first in the world as well as the first in the southern hemisphere.

The facility’s construction is expected to support 500 direct jobs, with hundreds of indirect jobs supported and up to 200 highly skilled staff will be expected to work at the facility once the hub is up and running from 2024.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the partnership was “crucial insurance” for the public’s health and will mean that Australians will now have access to “the most cutting-edge vaccination technology available.”

While Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said the deal would increase Australia’s future prosperity as Moderna becomes a key player in the development of Australia’s RNA technology.

The news of this agreement first came on Dec. 14, 2021, when the federal government announced an in-principle agreement with Victoria and Moderna.

At the time, Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas said: “This will be a boon for both our economic recovery and our fight against future pandemics.”

The Australian government promised a further investment of $25 million from 2022-23 as part of the 2021 mRNA Clinical Trials Enabling Infrastructure Opportunity to promote the development of mRNA technology in the country.

Victoria also announced its agreement between the government agency, mRNA Victoria, and Pfizer on March 18 to increase “global collaboration opportunities with Victorian researchers and industry.”

Vaccine production is expected to start in 2024, pending regulatory and planning approvals.

By Marina Zhang

Inside the mRNA vaccine lab that is coming to Australia
Inside the mRNA vaccine lab that is coming to Australia Boston: In a sprawling campus about 40 kilometres from downtown Boston, four biotech workers are gat...
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