Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Is Novavax the dark horse of Australia's COVID-19 vaccines?

Experts say early clinical data on Australia's third COVID-19 vaccine, Novavax, is promising enough to suggest it could play a significant role in the nation's pandemic strategy.

The federal government has signed up to buy 51 million doses of Novavax’s two-shot vaccine and those involved in trials say it is expected to be made available as early as the middle of this year, in addition to COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca that will be available in coming weeks.

Australia's Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly on Tuesday confirmed the nation's drug regulator was in direct talks with European and Norwegian authorities after several elderly people died after receiving Pfizer's vaccine. It is not yet clear if there was a link between the deaths and the vaccine.

While large phase three studies for the Novavax vaccine are ongoing, early data released in December suggests it is likely to offer strong protection against COVID-19. There are even hints it may do something other vaccines have struggled with: stop the coronavirus' spread.

"The phase one data was really convincing. The immune responses were really strong – up there in the realms we saw with the mRNA vaccines. That level of immune response tends to be a bit of a correlation ... those are the vaccines that have ended up giving very strong efficacy," said University of Sydney professor of medical microbiology James Triccas.

Paul Young, co-leader of the University of Queensland's aborted COVID-19 vaccine project, agreed the data "does look promising".

"The preclinical animal data showed that viral titres in the upper respiratory tract were lower in vaccinated animals, suggesting but not proving that infectivity and transmission may be lower," he said.

Paul Griffin, medical director of the Nucleus Network – contracted by Novavax to conduct clinical trials in Australia – said if all went well, the vaccine could be available for use by May or June.

"I think this is one, just based on where it’s up to timing wise, that has fallen off the radar in this country. There has been a lot of attention on Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna," he said. "It is looking very safe and effective."

It is difficult to directly compare phase one trial results, but data reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in December suggested Novavax’s vaccine produced an immune response similar to vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.

"They were able to induce higher [antibody] titres than recovered COVID patients. And that’s a really good sign. When we were seeing results like that, it did highlight Novavax is one to watch, and a really promising formulation," said Kylie Quinn, an RMIT vaccine designer.

Griffith University virologist Adam Taylor said the trials showed the vaccine was safe and generated good antibody responses. "Certainly, this is a useful candidate."

Other vaccines have already shown themselves capable of inducing strong immune responses and protecting people from the virus.

What makes Novavax different is a hint in the early data it could not just protect people but also stop the virus spreading. Stopping or reducing transmission of the virus is valuable to protect people who cannot or will not get vaccinated. At this stage, it remains unclear if any of the vaccines available can prevent transmission.

In a small study, Novavax’s vaccine effectively prevented COVID-19 growing in the noses of monkeys. Results in animals often do not translate to humans. But other vaccines have struggled to repeat the achievement; they effectively protect the lungs but still allow the virus to grow in the nose, where it could spread.

While other vaccines quickly moved from phase one to phase three trials and then approval, Novavax's progress has been slower. The company started its key phase three trial on December 28 after several delays due to issues scaling up vaccine manufacture.

Novavax has had a chequered history. Two failed vaccine trials in recent years led to the company’s stock plunging; it sacked 100 employees and closed two manufacturing plants. In its near-30-year history it is yet to develop an approved vaccine.

Nevertheless, the company is aiming to produce 2 billion doses of vaccine this year.

Novavax’s jab combines traditional and cutting-edge technology. Inside each vial are copies of COVID-19’s spike protein – the cellular harpoon it uses to attach to and enter our cells – and a dose of the company’s adjuvant. The adjuvant triggers the immune system, which recognises the spike protein and builds antibodies and immune cells capable of defending the body against the virus.

"It’s more of a traditional vaccine – the same type we have used for other vaccines we have in use," said Professor Triccas.

Novavax produces the spike proteins using moth cells, and then studs them on a nanoparticle, creating a shape that looks much like the spike-covered virus. In theory, immune cells should be much more likely to spot and attack these nanoparticles, as they look just like little viruses.

The company used similar technology in a flu vaccine it is developing. In a late-stage clinical trial, it produced much stronger antibody results than a current flu vaccine.

Addressing the deaths in Norway, Chief Medical Officer Professor Kelly said on Tuesday: "In a normal week, 400 people do pass away in their aged care facilities.

"In general terms, they were very old, they were frail, some of them were basically terminally ill."

It is not yet clear if the deaths are linked to the vaccine, and Australian experts have already said they are no reason to slow the vaccine's rollout.

Professor Kelly said it was possible Australia's drugs regulator would advise against giving the very elderly and frail the vaccine.

"That is a very tricky balance. We know elderly people, as is the case in Norway, elderly people in aged care facilities are towards the end of their life. We know from our own data from the Australian pandemic, of the 900 people who have died, they have mostly been in the very elderly group, they are of the greatest risk of severe infection," he said.

"The mortality rate is very high once you get over 80 or 90 if you get COVID-19. It's that risk balance equation which the [regulator] will need to do around which people should be excluded from the vaccine."

Barley finds a home in Mexico after China ban

Despite the trade tensions with China and the massive tariff imposed on barley exports, there are some good signs for grain growers on international markets.

West Australian grain handler CBH Group has sent a shipment of malt barley to Mexico, which is a first for the Australian grains industry.

The shipment of 35,000 tonnes of malting barley, used to make beer, was loaded at the port of Albany in WA and sent to Mexico.

CBH Chief Marketing and Trading Officer Jason Craig said other shipments could follow. "While it is early days, this shipment to Mexico signals a potential new market for malting barley. However, this will need to be developed over time."

There is an opening in Saudi Arabia, which is the second-largest barley market globally, importing approximately 7 million tonnes each year.

"Australian feed barley has become very price competitive compared to barley from alternative origins, such as Russia and the Ukraine that have dominated exports to the country for the past few years," Mr Craig said.

There is good news for Australian growers in the feed sector as well. Australian feed barley exports to Thailand and Vietnam are expected to double in 2020-21, according to CBH.

WA produced a big crop of barley, but growers were alarmed late last year when China, their biggest market, imposed a massive 80 per cent tariff. That dispute is heading to the World Trade Authority for resolution.

World wheat prices are also set to rise after Russia imposed a second levy on exports and cancelled some contracts for Russian wheat.

Commonwealth Bank Commodity Analyst Tobin Gorey said it was all being driven by domestic politics. "The Russian President doesn't want to see food prices in Russia continue to increase and he wants to keep more grain for local use."

Russia is the world's biggest exporter, so this latest action is expected to push world prices up.

"There will be a reduction in the amount of Russian wheat sold into the Middle East and South East Asia and it will pave the way for Australian grain sales," Mr Gorey said.

World wheat stocks have been running down over the last few years and Australian farmers on the eastern seaboard have had a big harvest.

It is a serendipitous moment, according to Tobin Gorey. "It's the best [harvest] for probably 10 years, and the world needs our wheat, so the prices have started to go up."

After three years of drought and the worry over the China trade dispute, it is good news for growers.

"We are still recovering from a three-year drought so having a bumper harvest and good prices are exactly what Australian farmers in Qld, SA and NSW were hoping for," Mr Gorey said

Government slams proposal to hold a minute's silence on Australia Day as the idea to recognise Indigenous Aussies will only 'increase division'

The Morrison government has slammed a proposal to hold a minute's silence on Australia Day.

Independent MP Zali Steggall wanted the silence to recognise the suffering of Aboriginal communities during and after colonisation.

But new citizenship minister Alex Hawke said the idea will only increase divisions. 'It is disappointing to see an ill-considered proposal from the Member for Warringah that plays negative politics with our history and which can only perpetuate divisions between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians,' he said in a statement.

'The truth is Australia Day unifies us all, because of our shared history – the good and the bad.

'Regardless of the failings in our history, Australia has become one of the most free, egalitarian, safe and diverse societies today, and our shared commitment to continuing this journey together is what matters most.'

Ms Steggall - who was an Olympic skiier before turning to politics - wrote to mayors in her Sydney electorate asking they observe a minute's silence on January 26.

The day celebrates the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet of British ships into Port Jackson in 1788.

Ms Steggall has written to the Australian Local Government Association along with the mayors of the North Sydney, Mosman and Northern Beaches councils.

But Alice Springs councillor and Warlpiri woman Jacinta Price condemned Ms Steggall for 'painting Indigenous Australians as helpless victims'. 'Zali needs to learn a bit more about our country's history, instead of using shallow, PC, woke-ish ways of dealing with these particular issues,' she told Jim Wilson on 2GB. She said Australia Day is a time for unity with people who have travelled across the world to become Australian.

Last week, Scott Morrison's government warned councils not to use the Covid as an excuse to cancel Australia Day celebrations to appease Invasion Day activists who want the date changed.

Local councils are required to hold citizenship ceremonies on January 26 and could have their citizenship powers revoked by the government if they fail to comply.

While most councils are still holding citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day, some have announced they have called them off in either solidarity with Indigenous people or the Covid pandemic.

Minister Hawke said local councils should not divide Australians over the contested date after a tough year marred by the pandemic.

'For any council seeking to play politics with Australia Day citizenship ceremonies, our message is simple - don't,' he told The Australian. 'Australians need this sort of negative bickering less than ever at this challenging time.

'We know the vast majority of councils across the country will do the right thing when determining whether to hold online or physical citizenship ceremonies.'

Inner-city Melbourne councils Yarra and Darebin will not be holding citizenship ceremonies on January 26.

The two councils voted to stop referring to January 26 as Australia Day in 2017, which resulted in their citizenship powers being stripped.

Yarra and Darebin councils will also hold events commemorating Indigenous people in place of Australia Day events.

According to a recent survey of 1,038 people by think tank Institute of Public Affairs, two thirds believed Australia Day should be celebrated on January 26.

Only 11 per cent were in favour of the date being changed.

About 72 per cent of people interviewed thought the day was an authentic way of of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to celebrate being Australian.

Aboriginal man slams the 'noisy minority' fighting to change the date of Australia Day - and says the event 'doesn't exclude indigenous people'

A proud Aboriginal man has slammed calls to change the date of Australia Day and says January 26 doesn't exclude indigenous people.

Indigenous affairs commentator and Australian Catholic University researcher Dr Anthony Dillon weighed into the debate this week when he said the date neither includes nor excludes people.

Dr Dillon has since publicly lashed the 'noisy minority' who want the date changed.

January 26 marks the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet into Port Jackson in 1788.

'For most of them it's a celebration… but you've got this minority who are trying to make out that the white man is yet again guilty and that it's a terrible day for Aboriginal people,' Dr Dillion told Sydney radio station 2GB on Wednesday.

'It does nothing for reconciliation, it does nothing for racial relations. It's ridiculous.'

He doesn't believe changing the date would change the situation. 'How would it?' he asked.

'The problems affecting Aboriginal people aren't going to be fixed by changing the date.'

He says it isn't the date that includes or excludes but individuals themselves.

'We are told that celebrating Australia Day on 26 January is not inclusive. Well actually, dates neither include nor exclude people. Individuals do that themselves. If you want to exclude yourself from celebrating Australia Day, go for it,' Dr Dillon tweeted earlier in the week.

He plans to celebrate next Tuesday's public holiday with friends. 'It will be a happy day for me but I guess ultimately, I will reflect on what a great country we live in,' he said.




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