GARY MOORHEAD. CSL- It Could Have Been Worse; Can It Be Better?

Apr 13, 2020

Back in 2010, Australia’s privatised Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (now CSL) was being tempted to move its vaccine research facilities to Switzerland, where it had been promised a better tax deal.

To remain in Australia, CSL wanted a sweetener of comparative value from the Australian Government. Key public services agencies and members of the Rudd Cabinet were resistant – “industry welfare” was never popular, especially in the aftermath of the GFC bailouts.

The decision swung in favour of paying to keep the facility in Australia when Rudd was made aware of a recently produced Report from the Prime Minister’s Science Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) titled “Epidemics in a Changing World, 1 October 2009”.

The Report described scenarios that will sound very familiar today, for instance:

· infectious agents that cause such diseases constantly evolve. This makes the prediction of future threats very difficult — so we must expect to be surprised.

The Report was prepared for PMSEIC by an Expert Working Group whose members drew heavily on their extensive scientific knowledge and expertise in fields including virology, entomology, epidemiology, medical science and veterinary science to produce recommendations, including:

· Australia possesses the human capacity to combat potential epidemics:

· This requires that we develop, maintain and retain skilled people through:

· conducting ongoing national workforce planning for expertise in human and animal epidemic diseases; and

· boosting higher education and research training in areas of need.

· In order to provide early warning of the emergence of epidemic diseases the Group recommended that:

· Australia possesses a long term biosecurity information collection, analysis and interpretation capability that can collect, analyse and interpret disease surveillance information.

· In order to secure the front-line defences needed to deal with emerging epidemic diseases the Group recommended that:

· Australia has a self-sufficient vaccine development and production capacity, and

· Australia needs to retain and enhance its onshore development and production capacity for vaccines. This is essential for domestic preparedness and the focus should be on the onshore development and production capacity.

Interestingly, it is rumoured that none of the agency advice initially provided to the decision-makers made reference to this Report – or took into account the issue of on-going national security from a health perspective. It was all about the money and not interfering with “the market”.

As soon as Rudd was made aware of the expert advice, he over-rode the views of the key agencies as well as the concerns of the neo-liberals in his own Government and agreed to the funding for the CSL research facility. This was (ironically) announced by his successor.

The bigger issue for today of course, is how far have we managed to come in acting on these recommendations?

In 2015, the Office of the Chief Scientist produced a paper titled: “Vaccines in the Frontline Against Infectious Disease”.

This paper provided more detail on the dimensions of the problem, but was less prescriptive in terms of what was required to make Australia safe. For example it said:

New strains of the influenza virus are expected to cause three severe influenza pandemics every century. The last pandemic in 2009 turned out to be mild, but exposed our limited capacity to produce influenza vaccines, with a global production capacity of 850 million doses. Major changes are required in both influenza vaccine production and pandemic preparedness to produce and quickly supply the billions of doses that could be required during a severe influenza pandemic.

And concluded by saying:

The challenge for all nations is to foster both the science and the scientific awareness of vaccination to keep our communities safe.

The question for now is: Have we done this – and is it enough?

Our stuttering response to the COVID 19 crisis would indicate that it is not.

In the aftermath of two and a half decades of privatisation and deregulation, Australian Governments have struggled to deal with real world issues like energy transition, depleting natural resources, waste management and even managing the quality of building and construction. This has been exacerbated by our unique capacity to weaponise and politicise issues (like energy transition) to an extent that paralyses responses.

This has been further exacerbated by cuts to science and research funding (the cuts proposed in the R&D Bill currently before Parliament is the latest example) and a hostility towards support for manufacturing industry that has seen Australia slide to 93rd on the Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity, a measure of a nation’s capacity to adapt its industries to meet changing needs.

CSL has grown and thrived since the Rudd support package, to become the fourth biggest company on the ASX, but does this mean CSL will make Australia’s needs the priority over servicing its shareholders’?

When our Government is unique in the world for not standing up to gas exporters to ensure we have sufficient gas reserved for our own industries, will it have the courage to tell CSL that the vaccines CSL produces must be for Australians first?

Most recently  Garry Moorhead was consultant to the St Baker Energy Innovation Fund (Sep 2019 – March 2020). Previously he was Chief of Staff to Senator Kim Carr (Shadow Minister/Minister for Innovation, Industry Science and Research 2017-2019; 2009 – 2013).

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