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Australia: ‘Make more here': Industry pitches plan to manufacture millions of rapid tests

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Australia could make more than two million rapid antigen tests (RATs) each week with an outlay of about $20 million on new production lines, say industry leaders who are putting plans to Labor and the Coalition in a bid for state and federal support.

Warning of a long-term shortage of the COVID-19 tests, industry executives estimate every $20 million investment could add another two million units to local manufacturing when employers and households are struggling to find imported kits.

But some companies are giving up on government help for local production after "lacklustre and disappointing" talks with state and federal officials, setting up a political contest at the federal election on how to boost supplies.

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Industry Minister Angus Taylor and Labor industry spokesman Ed Husic have both voiced support for local industry, while peak group Pathology Technology Australia seeks talks with both sides on a policy to expand local manufacturing.

"What we are looking at seriously now with local manufacturers is an opportunity to establish facilities where we could develop and manufacture at large scale for many different tests," said PTA chief Dean Whiting.

"Demand is probably going to outstrip supply for many months to come and we will have to work week-by-week to make sure that we have enough tests to meet our critical supply needs in Australia.

"But we have the ability in Australia to manufacture these tests. In fact, we have maybe four or five companies that are actually manufacturing these tests now, either in Australia or in their factories overseas.

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"We could scale that up to be able to manufacture millions of these tests every week."

Mr Whiting said 99 per cent of RAT kits sold in Australia were imported and only one company, Innovation Scientific, made and sold the products in this country. Others, such as Ellume, Lumos Diagnostic and AnteoTech have developed tests but sell them overseas.

Mr Whiting, a biochemist, said it would take nine months to a year to launch bigger production lines and this would be too late to fix immediate shortages, but he said the capacity would be needed for the long term.

The "lateral flow" devices in most RAT kits can also be used with different chemistry to detect seasonal flu, respiratory viruses, sexually transmitted infections and possibly heart conditions.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese has promised free kits for all but has not said how he would secure more supplies or how he would distribute them to make sure the greatest help went to those in the greatest need.

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Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has estimated the Labor claim would cost $13 billion each year to issue 10 free tests every quarter to all Australians aged five and over.

The government is promising to pay for 10 free tests every quarter for 6.6 million concession-card holders but is not supplying the kits, while pharmacies say they cannot meet demand.

Mr Taylor said many Australian companies were submitting their tests to the Therapeutic Goods Administration for approval and this was an encouraging sign for local industry.

"The government continues to engage with industry to understand Australia's local manufacturing capability for RATs, both currently, and for the longer term," he said.

But Labor industry spokesman Ed Husic said companies had warned the government long ago about the need for local manufacturing, saying a Labor government would help with a $15 billion national reconstruction fund, which includes support for the medical sector.

"Labor knows we need to rebuild local manufacturing so we can easily access vital goods and products," he said.

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"Prioritising the supply of locally made RATs and masks would be something we would work collaboratively with industry to address."

Mr Whiting said the plan to expand local production depended on state governments promising to buy Australian products for their testing centres, as well as a federal commitment to include the tests in Medicare.

While the cost for every unit might be higher than tests from China or elsewhere, he argued the approach would help Australia deal with global supply challenges.

Several Australian biotech companies have designed their own tests but have warned for more than a year that they would have to focus on overseas markets products because of a lack of interest from Australian governments.

Brisbane-based producer Ellume is already making hundreds of thousands of tests from its Richlands factory but is sending its stock to the United States under a $US300 million deal with the Biden administration.

Chairman of testing business Lumos Diagnostics Sam Lanyon said at the end of 2020 that stronger funding support for the industry would allow tests to be made onshore.

"We're not out for handouts. But the really cool thing is if we can build commercial demand here, we could bring manufacturing here to Australia," Mr Lanyon said at the time.

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