Regular PharmaBoardroom contributor Brendan Shaw outlines how his home country of Australia has so far successfully managed to avoid the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing opportunities for the life sciences industry to invest in new facilities, research and development in a post-pandemic world.


Australia, the island continent

A combination of early strict border controls combined with placing scientific and medical advice at the forefront of policy when the pandemic first broke in 2020 saw Australia manage to contain and restrict the virus better than many countries around the world.

The result is that as of today the country has seen 910 deaths since the start of the pandemic in a population of almost 26 million people.

Today, COVID cases in Australia are few and far between. At the time of writing, Australia has no cases of community transmission and has had no cases of community transmission for months at a time.

Domestic travel in the country is almost back to normal, many of the restrictions to manage COVID have been eased and the economy has bounced back spectacularly in a classic ‘V-shaped’ recovery only dreamed about by other countries 12 months ago.

The Australian Government expects the Australian economy to grow by a hefty 4.25 percent in financial year 2021-22 as the economy recovers from the pandemic lockdowns of 2020.

Despite the continuing tight restrictions on international travel and border controls, there is an emerging view in the global industry that Australia presents an opportunity for life science companies to expand their presence in the country, building a hub in the post-pandemic economy.

With its relatively COVID-free environment and steady policy and business environment, Australia provides real options for life science companies looking for their next investment opportunities in research, clinical trials, and manufacturing.


Opportunities in Australia’s life science sector

Australia’s life science sector has long been a quiet success story for the Australian economy.

An excellent and world-leading medical and scientific research base, growing biotech sector, established market for medicines and vaccines and presence of major local and international life science companies means there are opportunities for new investment in a post-COVID world.

Australia’s life sciences sector employs over 240,000 people and accounts for AUD three billion in exports each year.

The ASX-listed Australian life sciences sector is worth about AUD 100 billion and comprises about 100 companies.


Manufacturing base

Australia has both local and international players manufacturing pharmaceuticals and vaccines in the country ranging from larger companies like CSL Behring and AstraZeneca to smaller local manufacturers like Mesoblast, Pharmaxis, and Starpharma.

In fact, a major plank in the country’s pandemic recovery is CSL’s in-country manufacturing of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine under license at its facilities in Melbourne.

Australia’s excellence and technical capabilities in manufacturing, together with a Stringent Regulatory Agency of international standing in the Therapeutic Goods Administration provides a solid platform for other life science companies to examine potential investment opportunities to manufacture in Australia.

Post-pandemic, the Australian Government has recognised the opportunities for the country to capitalise on its relatively safe, secure and attractive business environment and has initiated several programs to promote life science manufacturing in the country.

The Government’s recent programs to encourage life science manufacturing include issuing a medical products priority road map as part of its Modern Manufacturing Strategy which is backed by AUD 1.5 billion in funding.

And literally days ago, the Australian Government formally issued an invitation to market for proposals to develop mRNA manufacturing capability in Australia, with the Australian Prime Minister saying the intention is to build manufacturing capability to last long after the COVID-19 pandemic.


Medical research and clinical trials

Australia’s excellent tradition in medical research provides opportunities for life sciences companies to partner and invest in medical technology and R&D.

For example. Janssen Pharmaceuticals last year announced a new partnership with Monash University to develop inhaled oxytocin to prevent postpartum haemorrhage in developing countries and another collaboration with Monash on coeliac disease.

Pfizer has several research partnerships with Monash University, the University of Queensland and the University of Melbourne in drug discovery.

Australia is a significant location for research and clinical trials for the life sciences industry, serving both local and international companies.

In 2019, 95,000 Australians participated in clinical trials in a year that saw 1,880 trials commence to advance medical knowledge and develop new medical technologies.

The country’s international outlook, strong science base, multi-ethnic English-speaking population and high educational and regulatory standards make Australia an attractive location to undertake clinical trials for medicines and vaccines.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia was able to pivot quickly and develop capabilities in technology and tele-monitoring in clinical trials, opening further opportunities for expanding its research base and patient populations into rural and regional areas.

A new report by L.E.K Consulting for MTP Connect – an Australian Government supported life science agency – shows that clinical trials contribute AUD 1.8 billion to the Australian economy each year and employ more than 8,000 Australians.

As Dr Dan Grant, Managing Director of MTP Connect said at the launch of the report:

Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic gives us a window of opportunity to further strengthen our reputation as a clinical trials destination of choice. We are one of the few countries in the world with a sophisticated healthcare system where many COVID-19 related restrictions have been lifted or eased, which means we have the opportunity to attract even greater numbers of clinical trials to Australia

Clinical trials are a focus of the Australian Government. In its May 2021 Budget the Government announced further funding to continue its Encouraging More Clinical Trials in Australia program to streamline processes and remove red tape for industry. This comes on top of the additional AUD 614 million in funding the Australian Government provides for clinical trials through its Medical Research Future Fund.


Other support for research and development

Other policy programs are in place to support research and development in Australia, including the Government’s flagship R&D tax incentive, together with its AUD 20 billion Medical Research Future Fund to support Australian health and medical research. There is also the Government’s Biomedical Translational Fund, an equity co-investment venture capital fund to support biomedical discoveries that commercialise health and medical research outcomes. Australia’s state and territory governments also provide a range of services and support to life science companies.

In May 2021, the Government also announced a new AUD 206 million patent box incentive, providing a reduced 17 percent tax rate on income earned intellectual property in medical and biotech innovation developed within Australia.

Given its relatively safe and secure business environment for locals and international staff alike, Australia is introducing new visas and incentives to encourage global talent and business executives to relocate to Australia as the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.


A lot to look at

On the back of its steady and secure status, capabilities and programs in life sciences together with its post-pandemic recovery strategies, Australia offers unique options for life science companies for future research, development, clinical trials and manufacturing.

Australia has made a real push in the post-pandemic era for the country to be a hub for the life sciences industry.

This has given companies and business executives something to think about.


Brendan Shaw is Principal of Shawview Consulting and Adjunct Senior Lecturer in global health and pharmaceutical policy at the University of New South Wales.