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COVID conflict or corporate coup: CSL welcomes AstraZeneca boss on board

While the race to develop an effective vaccine has been characterised as a global humanitarian effort, governments around the world have increasingly become engaged in an exercise of vaccine nationalism – funding and encouraging their own teams but also hedging their bets by throwing funds at offshore rivals to ensure local vaccine supply.

Health Minister Greg Hunt’s office has said the Australian government is confident CSL “has the capacity to produce sufficient vaccine [doses] for the entire Australian population either for Australian-based vaccines or under licence for leading international vaccines”.

That would suggest it is looking at the possibility of CSL using local manufacturing capability to produce vaccines under licence for other players if the UQ candidate doesn’t pan out.”It’s fair to say CSL is looking at those options as well,” a CSL spokesperson said.

On Friday Prime Minister Scott Morrison ventured further into vaccine nationalism territory warning that he expects any breakthroughs around the world to be passed on. According to the PM, Australia had freely shared its breakthrough genetic reproduction of the coronavirus and expected any breakthrough therapy to be shared with the world.

So how does Soriot’s seat at the CSL board table change the dynamics?

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At first glance the optics around the appointment are a bit eyebrow-raising. He is without doubt a very well qualified director but Soriot’s entry into CSL raises questions about competition and perceived conflicts.

Some could argue it’s akin to the chief executive of Rio Tinto joining the board of BHP.

But CSL is adamant that if you remove a COVID-19 vaccine from the table, the two companies operate in totally different product areas. CSL is focused on plasma-based therapies and its international rivals are Japan’s Takeda and Spanish-based Grifols while AstraZeneca produces chemical-based therapy products.

According to CSL, the appointment went through the various board governance due diligence committees of both companies and was awarded a tick.

Soriot’s presence should provide an easy means of communication between the two companies to assist with a potential licensing deal in the event that AstraZeneca developed a successful vaccine and the CSL/UQ candidate fell over.

However CSL chairman Brian McNamee is circumspect about that prospect, saying the appointment wouldn’t improve its access to the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“That said, CSL has been looking very closely at the different vaccine candidates around the world, in terms of how we might be able to use our technology platforms, skills and expertise to assist the global effort,” McNamee said on Friday.

“While our present priority is our collaboration with the University of Queensland, we are in discussions with a number of the groups involved including AstraZeneca, to see if there are ways we can support the manufacture and distribution of a successful vaccine.”

At this point CSL remains committed to team UQ. CSL says the UQ candidate is a better fit in that it uses CSL’s proprietary ‘booster of MF59’ adjuvant, which the company says “improves immune response, reduces the amount of antigen needed for each vaccine and enables more doses to be manufactured more rapidly”. Therefore leading to a research alignment between the two organisations.

CSL says it's priority is the manufacture of the University of Queensland vaccine candidate.

CSL says it’s priority is the manufacture of the University of Queensland vaccine candidate.Credit:Paul Jeffers

CSL says UQ is utilising technology that has been used many times before, where others are using technology platforms never tried in vaccines so there is a higher risk in that they have not been tried in large populations. UQ’s candidate also fits with CSL’s current manufacturing capability – so less need to retool the facilities.

But CSL said it could manufacture either the UQ or the AstraZeneca vaccines at its Broadmeadow facility in Victoria.

COVID-19 aside, the appointment of the French-born but UK-based Soriot is a major coup for the CSL board. The appeal for Soriot in taking a board position in Australia is more readily understood given his background, which includes a stint working here in the 1980s and early 1990s.

During an interview with the Financial Times four years ago, Soriot described how he had put down roots in Australia during his time here and would one day love to return to spend time with his two children and grandchild who live there.

There is no suggestion that the 61-year-old is looking at retirement anytime soon but taking a position around the board table at CSL looks like a natural fit.

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