Scott Morrison’s COVID-19 vaccine deal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, according to the company which is supposed to be making it

(Sam Mooy, Getty Images)
(Sam Mooy, Getty Images)
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday announced that Australia had signed a deal wtih pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to produce a potential vaccine being developed by Oxford University.
  • However, AstraZeneca has since confirmed that the deal is only a letter of intent with no formal agreement in place.
  • The new information casts some doubt over some of Morrison’s claims, including the assertion that it puts Australia “at the front of the pack” of nations vying for a vaccine.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

The prime minister spent much of his Wednesday on the press circuit, appearing on no less than six separate TV and radio programs before holding his own media conference.

The main talking point was evidently good PR for his government, striking a deal to manufacture 25 million doses of the vaccine under development by Oxford University.

The promise of a vaccine being available as soon as this year or early 2021 was always going to be a winner. However, the story has just as quickly taken a strange twist.

The pharmaceutical company at the heart of the deal, AstraZeneca, was forced to come out on Wednesday and clarify that no such ‘deal’ actually exists.

Instead, in a statement, the company confirmed that what had actually been signed between the two parties was a ‘letter of intent’.

The discrepancy between the two is more than simply a matter of semantics. While Morrison’s initial language suggested there was a formal agreement in place, a letter of intent is more akin to a non-binding indication of interest.

Indeed, as a company spokesperson told Pharma in Focus, the letter of intent “doesn’t go into any detail about costs or numbers or anything”. In other words, talk of 25 million doses is fanciful at best.

Nor do some of the claims made to media outlets on Wednesday appear to be substantiated.

“We will be manufacturing it here in Australia, we will be ensuring that every single Australian can get a vaccine… the deal we’ve signed with AstraZeneca gives that capability,” he told the Today program.

He made a similar claim to the ABC shortly after.

“To come to the conclusion with AstraZeneca will give us the opportunity to be at the front of the pack and to be able to manufacture the vaccine here, and make it available to all Australians,” he told Michael Rowland.

Indeed, as AstraZeneca pointed out in a statement, there’s still plenty of ways to go on both an actual agreement and the manufacturing of a vaccine.

“The next step will be to conclude other contractual agreements, including arrangements with a selected manufacturer who can produce the vaccine early,” the company said, suggesting it is still assessing CSL’s capability to do so.

Shadow Health Minister Chris Bowen pointed out meanwhile that formal agreements have been in fact signed between AstraZeneca and other countries such as the US, UK and China, placing Australia a long way from the front of the pack.

Critics have suggested that the timing of the news was a welcome distraction from an aged care sector beset by the virus.

To be fair to the PM, however, the vaccine in question is still in the midst of trials, so a purchase order of the formula was hardly on the table. With no guarantee that the Oxford vaccine would work or be the first safe, effective, and viable option, there never really was anything to buy.

That point aside, Morrison’s phrasing was a touch optimistic for a vaccine that for all intents and purposes doesn’t exist.