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Thursday, 8 March 1984
Page: 623

Senator TATE —Is the Minister representing the Minister for Health aware that a French pharmaceutical company has been granted permission to import into Australia a flu vaccine known as vaxigrip? Is it also a fact that the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories has built up very considerable facilities and expertise for the production of sufficient vaccine to meet the surges and variability of strains of influenza which hit Australia from time to time? Does the Minister agree that the introduction of French vaccine puts the commercial viability of CSL in jeopardy, given the fact that maintenance of a state of readiness and, indeed, overproduction is required if this national organisation is to guard against epidemics of new strains of flu? Will the Minister consult with his colleagues with a view to preventing this serious threat to this facility so important to the health of all Australians?

Senator GRIMES —I am aware that an application for the marketing of vaxigrip, which is a French-produced flu vaccine, was considered by the Australian Drug Evaluation Committee in July 1983. The Committee, which comprises experts in the fields of pharmacy, pharmacology and clinical medicine, advises the Minister for Health on the suitability of imported drugs for marketing in Australia. It is that Committee's task to be satisfied that, on the evidence available, the therapeutic substance is acceptable on the grounds of quality, safety and efficacy. Marketing approval was given by the Director-General of Health who, in accordance with the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations, may refuse to grant the application in respect of the substance only for reasons related to quality, safety and efficacy. No other consideration can be taken into account in this decision.

The charter of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories requires it to conduct its business in a manner which is commercially viable. I understand that the efficacy of production of influenza vaccine by the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories is such that it has recently been able to reduce the price of the vaccine. The question the honourable senator has raised suggests that the production of influenza vaccine by the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories may be of special national interest. I advise honourable senators that over a period of some years successive Ministers have determined that a level of reserve stocks of influenza vaccine should be maintained at CSL in order to meet any anticipated demand caused by epidemics. The Government reimburses CSL for the maintenance of such stocks. The Minister for Health has recently received a submission from the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories on this question, which his Department is examining. The Minister has assured me that he will give full consideration to the options available.

I will certainly convey to the Minister the concerns expressed by Senator Tate. As all honourable senators I am sure are aware, the Government wishes to see the development of high technology skills in the Australian economy. The production of vaccine and medical research in general offers great scope for the encouragement of these skills and processes. The Government is, therefore, closely interested in this matter, not only from the public health point of view , important as that is, but also to ensure that no steps are taken which may adversely affect the ability of Australian companies such as CSL to acquire new advanced technology capability.