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Australia's CSL eyes COVID-19 vaccine by mid-2021 as it beats profit forecast

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian biotech giant CSL Ltd raised hopes on Wednesday of delivering a coronavirus vaccine within a year as annual profit outstripped a forecast, thanks to heavy demand for inoculation and blood plasma products that sent shares soaring.

The update from one of Australia’s biggest listed companies puts the spotlight on the former government laboratory that has joined several global projects to develop a vaccine but has been cautious about setting a timeline.

One project is a partnership with Australia’s University of Queensland, and “We now estimate first doses of the UQ vaccine will be available for ... emergency use by the middle of 2021”, CSL’s Chief Executive Paul Perreault told a news teleconference.

CSL has said it could make the first large-scale doses of the vaccine at its Melbourne facility. The first trial doses were administered in July, and the company says it will manage subsequent trial phases.

Optimism over the company’s prospects and a better-than-expected annual profit pushed its shares up 7% by mid-afternoon, outperforming a rise of 0.8% in the benchmark.

“Demand for products, as seen in the robust FY20 result, remains strong and while there is earnings pressure in FY21, the longer-term story remains intact,” Credit Suisse analysts said in a note.

For the year to the end of June, the company reported net profit of $2.25 billion on a constant currency basis, up from $1.92 billion a year earlier and bettering the figure of $2.17 billion at the top end of its April guidance.

The constant currency profit strips out the impact of foreign exchange changes over the year.

The company upped its final dividend to $1.07 a share, from $1.00 a year earlier.

For the current financial year it forecast comparable net profit in a range from $2.1 billion to $2.27 billion, reflecting nearly flat growth because of difficulty securing blood donations for plasma products amid virus curbs.

The company is also in talks with AstraZeneca to make the British drugmaker’s potential vaccine in Australia, but Perreault said only that its capabilities were in focus.

“We’re certainly in discussions with AZ and the Australian government about what is our ability to do more,” he added.

Reporting by Byron Kaye in Sydney and Shashwat Awasthi and Shruti Sonal in Bengaluru; Editing by Rashmi Aich and Clarence Fernandez