Sanofi sparks French outcry after saying US likely to get first Covid-19 vaccine

France has warned Sanofi it would be “unacceptable” for any country to get priority access to a coronavirus vaccine after the Paris-based drugmaker said the US was likely to receive the first doses.

The French presidency on Thursday said Emmanuel Macron had summoned Sanofi’s top management to the Elysée Palace next week, reiterating the French leader’s calls for any vaccine against Covid-19 to be treated as “public good for the world, and not subject to the laws of the market.”

The reaction was triggered by comments by Sanofi chief executive Paul Hudson to Bloomberg News that the US government had “the right to the largest pre-order because it’s invested in taking the risk” by funding vaccine development and production.

“For us, it would be unacceptable for there to be privileged access to this or that country for financial reasons,” France’s deputy finance minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher told Sud Radio.

French prime minister Édouard Philippe tweeted: “Access for all to the vaccine is not negotiable.”

Outcry at the world’s third-biggest vaccine maker underlines the heightening tensions between countries and pharmaceutical companies as the global race to develop, produce and distribute a vaccine intensifies. Even if a vaccine is found to be effective, ramping up production to meet demand will be a huge challenge, industry executives and experts such as Bill Gates have warned.

In an open letter released on Thursday, three African leaders and more than 140 public figures, including 50 former world leaders, called for any vaccine to be patent-free, produced at scale and made available at no cost to people everywhere.

French criticism of Sanofi spanned the entire political spectrum. Socialist party leader Olivier Faure said health should be a “public good insulated from the games of the market”, making a veiled threat that companies that threatened France’s sovereignty over its health policy could be nationalised. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen lamented the lack of “economic patriotism”. Oxfam, a charity, called Sanofi’s behaviour “scandalous”.

Sanofi, which has two Covid-19 vaccines in development, including one in partnership with GlaxoSmithKline, has been vocal in calling for governments to do more to help the industry ramp up production.

Mr Hudson, a British pharmaceutical industry veteran who took Sanofi’s helm in September last year, has warned as early as last month that the US was likely to be first in line to receive doses. This is because the US government had quickly provided funding to vaccine makers to help them build production capacity even before efficacy was proved.

The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (Barda) — a state agency created in 2006 with the aim of preparing the US for bioterrorism threats as well as pandemics — has committed to paying more than $1bn to companies including Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi to fast-track Covid-19 vaccines.

The initiative is part of what US president Donald Trump has baptised “Operation Warp Speed”, designed to mobilise the pharma industry, the government and the military to accelerate availability of a vaccine.

Mr Hudson has been lobbying for months for the EU to adopt a US-like approach to financing vaccine development, lamenting the lack of concrete action. There is “a risk that all of the vaccines will be manufactured first in the US because of Barda, and conceivable that the US government asks that their people are treated first”, he said in April.

The EU has taken some steps to support vaccine development, including hosting an online international pledging conference with world leaders last week that raised about $8bn towards Covid-19 vaccines, testing and treatments. The US did not attend the event and China sent only its ambassador to the EU.

On Thursday, Sanofi sought to calm things down by saying that if its experimental vaccines were found to be effective, it would be “available to everyone” and underlining that it had “manufacturing capacity in the US, Europe and all other main regions”.

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