French Pharmaceutical Giant Criticised for Considering U.S. Priority for COVID-19 Vaccine

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French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi has come under fire at home after chief executive Paul Hudson suggested the U.S. would get first access to a vaccine the firm is working on for COVID-19.

The company tried to repair the damage on Thursday, with Sanofi France president Olivier Bogillot telling BFMTV television that “if the Europeans work as quickly as the Americans” in supporting research they could get it at the same time.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said he had called the company’s chairman, Serge Weinberg, to “remind” him that equal access to the vaccine for everyone was “not negotiable.”

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“He gave me all the necessary assurances concerning the distribution in France of any Sanofi vaccine,” Philippe wrote on Twitter.

Hudson told the news agency, Bloomberg, on Wednesday that the U.S. government “has the right to the largest pre-order because it’s invested in taking the risk.”

He was cited as saying that the U.S. could be days or weeks ahead of other countries in getting access to the vaccine and that Europe needed to step up efforts so as not to be left behind.

Bogillot told broadcaster LCI that U.S. authorities had started working with the company on a vaccine months ago, while in Europe discussions had only started some weeks ago and it was difficult to find “one person to talk to”.

Vaccines normally took years to develop and to get one ready next year, Europe would have to “mobilise at the same speed as the Americans to accelerate all the regulatory steps,” he said.

Sanofi is working on two potential vaccines against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, one of them in conjunction with U.S. government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).

Hudson last month said the firm hoped to gain approval for that vaccine in the “mid to second half of 2021,” with the second vaccine also coming online in the second half of 2021.

In an emailed statement late on Wednesday, Sanofi said it was having “very constructive conversations” with the European Union, France, and Germany to get support similar to that offered by the U.S.

The company said its U.S.-based production would be mainly for the U.S. market, with sites elsewhere covering Europe and the rest of the world.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said Hudson’s comments to Bloomberg “do not in any way correspond to the work underway between Sanofi and the French government.”

“As Emmanuel Macron has indicated, a vaccine against COVID-19 must be a global public good,” Philippe wrote on Twitter.

Hudson’s comments drew anger from the French opposition too, with Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure saying they were “scandalous.”

No French company should be able to “play against our sovereignty in health matters without running the risk of being nationalised,” he said in a statement late on Wednesday.

The European Commission backed the French position, with spokesperson Stefan de Keersmaecker saying that access to any vaccine “needs to be equitable and universal”.

“Solidarity and close coordination are the most effective and the most secure response to … COVID-19,” de Keersmaecker said.

The European Commission last week hosted an international pledging conference where 7.4 billion euros was promised to help develop a vaccine, tests and treatments for global use.

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