The contract covers 25m doses in total. Moderna will provide the Australian government with 10m doses of mRNA-1273, its existing vaccine against the ancestral coronavirus strain, this year and go on to ship 15m doses of its updated variant candidate in 2022.
Moderna shared initial data from a midphase trial of a vaccine designed to protect against B.1.351, the variant first identified in South Africa, earlier this month. The study found a booster shot with the variant vaccine, mRNA-1273.351, achieved higher neutralizing antibody titers against B.1.351 than a follow-up mRNA-1273 jab.
The clinical significance of the lower antibody titers achieved by first-generation COVID-19 vaccines against some variants is unclear. There is emerging real-world evidence that the ancestral strain Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine provides high levels of protection against B.1.351, contributing to skepticism in some quarters about the need for booster shots.
Governments are interested in booster vaccines, though. The Australian agreement provides further validation of the situation Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel set out on a quarterly results conference call with investors on May 7.
“We’re hearing loud and clear from the market: supply us with more mRNA vaccine for primary series and supply us with more mRNA vaccine in the future for boosters for 2022 and 2023. There is a big shift versus what the market perceived six or nine or 12 months ago, when protein vaccines or adeno vaccines were thought to be the answer to the pandemic,” said Bancel.
Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is yet to approve either the ancestral or variant Moderna vaccine. Completion of the agreement is subject to regulatory approval of mRNA-1273 by the TGA.
While Moderna is yet to enter the Australian market, it has been stepping up its focus on the country in recent months. The biotech plans to open a commercial subsidiary in Australia this year and is in talks with the Australian government about setting up a manufacturing plant in the country.
“Onshore manufacturing would ensure a secure, long-term supply of Moderna’s mRNA-based vaccines against COVID-19, including variants, and for potential future pandemics,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The proposed expansion is part of a broader effort by Moderna to build on the changes triggered by the pandemic, which accelerated its transition from clinical-stage biotech with unproven technology to commercial business with a blockbuster product.
Moderna’s post-pandemic plan includes a flu vaccine program that it plans to take into the clinic this year. In the longer term, Moderna envisages producing a single vaccine that protects against flu and COVID-19.