PARIS — It would be “unacceptable” for French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi to give first access to a potential COVID-19 vaccine to the United States, French government officials said Thursday.
The pushback came after comments by Sanofi Chief Executive Paul Hudson.
“The U.S. government has the right to the largest preorder because it’s invested in taking the risk,” Hudson told Bloomberg News in a story published Wednesday. The United States, Hudson said, expanded its investment in the company’s vaccine research in February and thus expects that “if we’ve helped you manufacture the doses at risk, we expect to get the doses first.”
Those comments did not sit well in Paris.
“For us, it would be unacceptable if there were privileged access from this or that country under a pretext that would be a monetary pretext,” France’s state secretary for economy and finance, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, told France’s Sud Radio on Thursday.
Olivier Véran, France’s health minister, said he was shocked when he saw Hudson’s interview.
“When I read that, I took my phone — it was late, it would have been something like 11 at night — and I called the CEO of Sanofi France for an explanation,” Véran said, speaking Thursday to France’s BFM TV.
A COVID-19 vaccine “should be a global public good,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe tweeted. “Equal access for everyone to the vaccine is not negotiable.”
A spokesman for the Elysee Palace, the seat of the French presidency, said that President Emmanuel Macron was struck by Hudson’s comments in the same way as his ministers were, and that Hudson would meet Macron at the Elysee next week, although a date for that meeting had not yet been set.
The Elysee said it was “concentrating its efforts on a coordinated multilateral response so that a vaccine is available to all and at the same time, because it knows no borders.”
Early in the coronavirus outbreak, France came under heavy criticism for its reluctance to share protective medical equipment with its European neighbors. It subsequently has taken a more communal approach. And Macron, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been an especially vocal proponent of a global initiative to develop a successful COVID-19 vaccine that would not favor any particular country.
“We need to make sure it is rendered accessible to all of those around the world,” he said in April.
Macron and Merkel, along with the World Health Organization, spearheaded a roughly $8.2 billion vaccine fundraising drive that culminated in a virtual summit this month, during which world leaders and prominent philanthropists pledged to fund vaccine research, testing kits and mass-produced drugs that could effectively fight the coronavirus.
The United States did not participate in the conference. It has instead partnered directly with pharmaceutical companies, contributing half a billion dollars to Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine effort and hundreds of millions of dollars to Sanofi and to Moderna, a biotech company in Massachusetts teaming with a Swiss company for vaccine manufacturing.
More than 100 COVID-19 vaccine research efforts are in progress around the world, in laboratories in the United States, Britain, Germany, France and elsewhere. The question of national preference in these trials has been present from the beginning.
Heralding an Oxford University trial last month, for instance, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said citizens of Britain should have preference if the trials proved successful. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has talked about the importance of a globally available vaccine.
“The race to discover the vaccine to defeat this virus is not a competition between countries but the most urgent shared endeavor of our lifetimes,” Johnson said at the virtual vaccine summit.
The agency that approves medicine for the European Union said Thursday that in an optimistic scenario, a vaccine could be approved by early 2021.
Sanofi has two coronavirus candidate vaccines in preclinical evaluation.
The research behind the first, investigating a preclinical SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) candidate vaccine, was conducted in conjunction with British pharmaceutical conglomerate GlaxoSmithKline and supported by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Sanofi said it expects to launch human trials for that vaccine in the second half of 2020.
The firm’s second candidate vaccine is being developed with Translate Bio, a Lexington, Massachusetts-based therapeutics company.
Hudson’s comments and additional messaging from Sanofi may be part of an effort to prod European governments to invest more in vaccine research. As Hudson told Bloomberg, his aim was partially to “to try to create a debate in Europe to say, ‘Don’t let Europe be left behind.’ “
But by Thursday morning, the company appeared to be backpedaling somewhat.
Olivier Bogillot, head of Sanofi’s French division, told France’s BFMTV network that the vaccine would be available to Europeans at the same time as Americans if the European Union were as “efficient” a partner.
“If we discover a vaccine, it will be accessible to everyone — the Americans and the Europeans will have it at the same time,” Bogillot said. “The words of Paul Hudson were misunderstood; he was just calling on the European Union to be more efficient.
“For me, the debate is closed,” he said. “The vaccine, if discovered, will be made available to French patients.”
“GSK and Sanofi both believe that global access to COVID-19 vaccines is a priority,” the company said in a statement. “And we are committed to making any vaccine developed through the collaboration available and affordable through mechanisms that offer fair access to people around the globe, including the U.S.
“It is critical that governments support this goal and collaborate to help industry to make fair allocation decisions,” the company said.