Vaccine production skills continue to fall

Alex MitchellAAP
Australia is throwing its mRNA vaccine production capabilities away, a Senate committee has heard.
Camera IconAustralia is throwing its mRNA vaccine production capabilities away, a Senate committee has heard. Credit: AP

A Pfizer manufacturing employee made redundant as the pharmaceutical giant shuts its Perth plant has detailed his "true disappointment" as Australia struggles to build vaccine production capability.

Richard Glenk worked at Pfizer for more than 10 years before it announced it would cease operating its Perth plant in 2023, leaving more than 470 jobs at risk.

Mr Glenk, who told a Senate committee examining the manufacturing sector the company would instead boost production in India and China for "very much commercial reasons", said it was a "tragedy" to lose the site's world-leading pharmaceutical skills.

"Should I wish to remain in pharmaceutical manufacturing, I have to move my family or leave the industry," he said.

"What's truly disappointing is this Perth site for over 50 years has produced medicine to the highest international medical standards ... as good as any pharmaceutical manufacturing site in the world."

Harry Fischer suffered a similar fate, with GSK Australia announcing it would shut its Boronia plant at the end of next year, after working with the company for 16 years.

He noted GSK had successfully tested the use of blow fill seal for cheaper vaccine production targeted for developing nations.

GSK is one of just three Australian blow fill seal manufacturers, with two of those now shutting.

"Now we're being shut down, and what does the whole world need? Vaccines," he said.

Mr Fischer said lag between the facilities shutting and Australia boosting its mRNA production capabilities would see the skill level in the sector dwindle.

"At a time it's really important to have that capacity. We're literally throwing it away," he said.

Liberal senator Paul Scarr said it was "counterintuitive someone in that space would be closing locally based manufacturing facilities given the supply chain access issues".

Labor senator Jess Walsh agreed it was "counterintuitive at worst and crazy at best".

"At a time we're looking to build this sovereign capability in pharmaceutical manufacturing we've got these two plants closing," she said.

United Workers Union executive director Godfrey Moase said Australia was well behind in the race due to a lack of production capability.

"Large multinational corporations are choosing to consolidate where they can make the most amount of money ... we are not exercising functional leadership with a vision," he said.

Mr Moase said the federal government's first responsibility was to create a market particularly regarding mRNA vaccines by allocating funds to developing nations lacking resources to get its people vaccinated.

Separately, Labor senator Kimberley Kitching noted Shepparton face mask manufacturer Med-Con had lost its contract with the federal government, with local suppliers opting for cheaper overseas alternatives.

Med-Con was the only Australian mask manufacturer when COVID first hit last year.

"(Med-Con) has had to downsize its workforce and downsize the amount of masks it was producing, which seems a shame ... I think the owner has said he'd think twice about taking on a Commonwealth contract," she said.

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