SYDNEY - Australia said Wednesday it has struck a deal with a Britain-based drugmaker to manufacture a potential coronavirus vaccine locally and make it available to Australians for free, if clinical trials prove successful.
AstraZeneca PLC has been conducting a large, final-stage trial of the vaccine candidate developed by Oxford University.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in announcing the deal at a press conference in Sydney, said the deal puts Australia "in the leading pack" when it comes to "vaccines being made available to our citizens." The deal "gives me hope," he added.
Morrison said he hopes a successful vaccine could be rolled out in early 2021, but quickly added that there is no guarantee the Oxford University vaccine would prove effective.
The prime minister said the government will continue to discuss other potential vaccine prospects with other parties.
The prime minister said Australia will also play a role in providing early access to the vaccine for countries in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, noting that he already had discussions with leaders of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.
In an earlier radio interview, Morrison said he expected to make the vaccination "as mandatory as you can possibly make it" once it was rolled out.
"We've got to get about 95 percent (of the population vaccinated)," he said on Melbourne 3AW. "There are always exemptions for any vaccine on medical grounds, but that should be the only basis."
Australia was successful in suppressing the virus early in the pandemic due to strict travel and public health restrictions. However, an outbreak in the country's second-most populous state, Victoria, has seen case numbers and deaths rise considerably in recent weeks.
Nationwide, Australia has confirmed almost 24,000 infections and roughly 450 deaths from the virus.