This page belongs to: Action Plan for Critical Technologies

Vaccines and medical countermeasures

Tools and techniques to quickly develop and manufacture vaccines, drugs, biologic products and devices used to diagnose and treat emerging infectious diseases and medical conditions caused by exposure to harmful chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear substances. Applications for vaccines and medical countermeasures include public health emergencies, industrial accidents and defence.

Key sectors

  • Agriculture
  • Defence & Defence Industry
  • Health

Estimated impact on national interest

Economic Prosperity - Med
National Security - High

Key Australian Government actions

Initiatives

  • Antimicrobial Resistance joint initiative – Australia’s National Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy
  • National Microbial Genomics Framework 2019–2022
  • Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) Priority Mission
  • National Manufacturing Strategy – Priority area of Medical Products
  • National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy
  • Agricultural Innovation Policy Statement
  • Various Rural RDC priority initiatives

Regulations

  • Therapeutic Goods Act 1989
  • Therapeutic Goods Regulations 1990
  • Gene Technology Act 2000
  • Gene Technology Regulations 2001
  • Defence and Strategic Goods List 2021

Example outcomes

  • Pandemic preparedness and response
  • Improved health outcomes in emergency settings and industrial accidents
  • Improved individual health
  • Improved animal health and welfare outcomes
  • Reduced mortality and morbidity from infectious and communicable diseases

Underpinning science

ANZ Standard Research Classification Category

  • Agricultural biotechnology
  • Applied computing
  • Applied ethics
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Biochemistry and cell biology
  • Bioinformatics and computational biology
  • Clinical sciences
  • Data management and data science
  • Fisheries sciences
  • Genetics
  • Immunology
  • Industrial biotechnology
  • Machine learning
  • Medical biotechnology
  • Sociology
  • Plant biology
  • Software engineering
  • Statistics
  • Veterinary sciences

Example applications

Readiness Level – Now

  • mRNA vaccine for COVID-19
  • Human protection suits
  • Vaccines, medicines and therapies
  • Diagnostic systems
  • Telemedicine and remote diagnostics
  • Physiological sensors (smart watches, fitness trackers, telemetric pills)

Readiness Level – 2–5 years

  • mRNA vaccines for emerging communicable diseases and cancer causing viruses
  • Needle-free mechanisms for vaccine delivery
  • Wearables for diagnostic and countermeasure response alerts
  • Personalised medicines and therapies
  • Hyperspectral snapshot imaging to map chemicals in the landscape
  • Next-generation respirators and air purifiers

Readiness Level – Beyond 5 years

  • Organ-on-a-chip sensors to detect pathogens and chemicals
  • Rapid diagnostics and therapies (convergence biomarkers, genetic therapies and smart materials)
  • Personalised medical diagnosis and treatment (enabled through genome sequencing, genetic engineering and synthetic biology)
  • Auto-detect, diagnose and response systems (countermeasures without human intervention)
  • Tissue barriers (topical skins, mucosal surfaces)
  • Quantum spectroscopy to detect small concentrations of chemicals and biologicals
  • Quantum gravity sensors to detect shielded nuclear materials

Australia's place in the world

The United States has the highest research impact for vaccines and medical countermeasures, with nearly three times that of second-ranked China and more than eight times Australia. However, China has the highest number of patents – over double that of the United States – while Australia ranks 13th. Venture capital (VC) investment in this field has been increasing at around 34% p.a. The United States has a significant lead in venture capital investment over China and Germany (ranked 2nd and 3rd respectively). Australia ranks 19th for VC investment in this area.

8 of the top 10 international institutions are from the United States, which is consistent with the overall research impact of the United States. Australia has 3 institutes in the top 50 – the University of Melbourne (29th), the University of Sydney (30th) and Monash University (40th). The latter, Monash University, developed a vaccine candidate during the COVID-19 pandemic while the former two have been allocated funding for vaccine research.

A significant increase in VC investment occurred between 2019 and 2020, consistent with increased activity in vaccine and countermeasure research in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Traditionally, medical countermeasures have been linked with defence priorities; however, COVID-19 and other disease outbreaks have highlighted the broader necessity of vaccine and medical countermeasure development.

Opportunities and risks

Advancements in vaccine and medical countermeasure technologies will lead to better health outcomes and reduced stress on paramedic and hospital systems. Vaccines are an essential preventative public health measure to protect populations from communicable diseases. With Australia’s strengths in the genomics and genetic engineering, as well as strong international collaborations in these areas, Australia is well positioned to continue contributing to these outcomes. Australia’s pivot to sovereign vaccine manufacturing during COVID-19 pandemic also demonstrated the great potential that exists in vaccine R&D. Throughout the period, several domestic universities developed novel vaccine candidates for the COVID-19. Moreover, some businesses adapted to then manufacture the candidates. With continued funding and research, vaccine development such as this may help Australia obtain vaccine security as well as export opportunities. Medical countermeasures promise the development of better sensors (persistent, sensitive, rapid and remote) which can be combined with enhanced diagnostics to enable time-compliant detection and intervention of threats – and thereby reduce their exposure to populations. The improved efficacy of countermeasures to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats and epidemics will also be realised through enhanced preparedness, rapid and more accurate diagnostics, and personalised therapies.

CBRN threats are expected to increase, as vaccine and medical countermeasure technologies may be misused by malevolent actors to create chemical or biological warfare agents. Being aware of this risk and developing means to protect our assets will be essential. Additionally, through the democratisation and accessibility of technologies, the intellectual property of technology may be compromised.

From a societal perspective, there may also be ethical and religious reluctance to the acceptance of new sensors, monitoring systems, drugs and treatments. A lack of acceptance may limit uptake and impede the development of populationwide protection. There may also be concerns associated with data privacy from the collection and storage of medical histories (e.g. biomarkers and therapeutic reaction data).

Research impact (RI)

The United States has the highest research impact, with Australia ranked 8th. Total volume of published research has increased at around 35% p.a. over the five-year period 2016–2020, with 24% of research involving international collaboration.

  1. USA - 210091
  2. China - 73178
  3. UK - 49840
  4. Germany - 38823
  5. Italy - 34434
  1. Australia - 24466

The research impact provides an indication of the productivity of a country or institution. Here, productivity was assumed to be represented by the volume of publications (i.e. scholarly output) as an indicator of the resources & facilities, and the level of interest in the publications as an indicator of quality

VC investment

The United States has significantly higher amounts of venture capital (VC) investment, well ahead of China (2nd), and Australia 19th. Investment in this area has been growing at around 34% p.a. since 2016.

  1. USA
  2. China
  3. Germany
  4. UK
  5. Canada
  1. Australia

Data from Crunchbase. The Crunchbase database provides a partial view of the global VC landscape. However the quantity, quality and richness of the data are considered to be statistically significant, and indicative of global trends.

Patents - international

Most patents for this technology were filed by Chinese applicants or inventors, almost double the number of the United States. Australia is ranked 13th with 309 patents first filed here. The number of global patent filings in this field has remained steady from 2015 to 2019.

  1. China - 21474
  2. USA - 10090
  3. R. of Korea - 1955
  4. Taiwan - 1531
  5. Japan - 1280
  1. Australia - 309

Research institutions - international

The United States has 8 institutes in the top 10 international institutions, with 4 institutes in the top 5. France and the United Kingdom make up the top 10 international institutes.

Rank Top International Institution Research Impact
1 Harvard University | United States 27849
2 National Institutes of Health | United States 17913
3 University of Pennsylvania | United States 17467
4 Johns Hopkins University | United States 15901
5 Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale | France 14148
6 Stanford University | United States 12919
7 University of Washington | United States 9873
8 University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center | United States 9598
9 University College London | United Kingdom 9435
10 Duke University | United States 9136

Research institutions - Australia

Australia has 3 institutions in the top 50 international institutions. The University of Melbourne, which has the highest research impact in Australia, is ranked 29th globally. The University of Sydney is ranked 30th, and Monash University is ranked 40th.

Rank Top Australian Institution Research Impact
1 University of Melbourne 6351
2 University of Sydney 6348
3 Monash University 5381
4 University of Queensland 3373
5 University of New South Wales 2017
6 University of Western Australia 1414
7 Peter Maccallum Cancer Centre 1018
8 University of Adelaide 897
9 Griffith University Queensland 523
10 Hudson Institute of Medical Research 513

Patents - Australia

Top 5 Australian Patent Applicants Patent Families
Queensland Institute of Medical Research 20
University of Sydney 10
Monash University 9
Griffith University 7
Cynata Therapeutics 5

Patents filed by Australian businesses, 2015-2019.