Australia’s pharmaceutical contracts will be reviewed to ensure the nation is well placed in relation to emerging COVID-19 variants.

Former health department head Jane Halton will look into the contracts with pharmaceutical companies signed by the previous government.

The government wants the review conducted as a matter of urgency to respond to emerging variants and give Australians access to the best health measures, Health Minister Mark Butler says. 

“I make no judgment about the existing contracts. I have no reason to think that they’re not appropriate,” he told reporters in Canberra on Thursday. 

“But this is a fast-moving landscape, we need to make sure that we are agile … to ensure that arrangements that might have been fantastic three months ago are fit for purpose for the rest of this year and into next year.”

Key elements of the review will include a stocktake of vaccine and treatment supplies in Australia, possible virus developments, and whether any changes need to be made to contracts inherited from the previous government.

While there is no deadline for the review, the minister said he expected it to be undertaken within weeks, not months. 

“I do think this is a race,” Mr Butler said.

“I’m absolutely determined to ensure that Australians have priority access to the best available vaccines and treatments from around the world.”

Ms Halton is a well-respected and experienced leader in the health sector who undertook the previous government’s review of hotel quarantine.

She has held senior roles in the public service, is chair of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and co-chair of COVAX, an organisation set up to ensure developing countries have access to COVID vaccines.

Ms Halton reviewed Australia’s quarantine arrangements under the former government. 

Mr Butler stressed the snap pharmaceutical contract review was not a full pandemic management inquiry. 

“It’s not about looking back and examining the rights and wrongs of the former government’s approach to negotiating these contracts in the first place, it’s about the now and the next 12 to 18 months,” he said.