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EU hosts virus telethon, seeking first 7.5 bn euros

Mmore than 100 vaccine research projects are under way around the world, according to an analysis published Monday
Mmore than 100 vaccine research projects are under way around the world, according to an analysis published Monday ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS AFP/File
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Brussels (AFP)

Europe hosts a teleconference for world leaders and philanthropists Monday, seeking 7.5 billion euros to boost the drive to discover, produce and distribute a vaccine against the new coronavirus.

COVID-19 has killed nearly 250,000 people around the world -- more than 140,000 of them in Europe -- and Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission and the host of the online donor conference, said a vaccine was the best chance of beating it.

But, while major European powers are set to lead the pledges, there will be no official US representation, weakening the event and raising the prospect of an uncoordinated competition to develop and produce a vaccine.

European institutions, along with the leaders of France, Germany, Britain, Italy and Spain will pledge funds at the event, due to start at 1300 GMT.

From Asia, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will pledge for Japan, while giant China -- where the outbreak originated late last year -- will only be represented by its ambassador to the EU.

In total around 40 countries, along with UN and philanthropic bodies -- including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- and research institutes are expected to make donations.

But the initiative is undermined by the absence of the United States, with President Donald Trump in open warfare with the World Health Organization over its handling of the pandemic.

Trump -- fighting for reelection in November -- said on Sunday that the United States will have a coronavirus vaccine ready by the end of the year.

The prediction was met with scepticism in some quarters, with Germany's Health Minister Jens Spahn warning it could take years for anyone to develop a vaccine.

- 'Only start of process' -

While putting an upbeat gloss on the event in public, privately EU officials are disappointed the US is not taking part.

"The EU responded favourably to a call for global action, the US refused. They are the ones who are isolating themselves," one official said.

"But we are working very closely with very powerful American entities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has huge financial resources and great influence.

"We're only at the start of the process. We hope the American government will join the common effort."

A spokesperson for the US mission to the United Nations in Geneva said Washington "welcomes efforts by other countries to mobilise resources to mitigate and ultimately end the COVID-19 pandemic" such as Monday's pledging event.

It said Washington was itself helping mobilise "the power and resilience of the world's leading democracies and free economies" to fight the virus.

- 'Vaccine war' -

But European leaders are concerned that Trump's "America First" approach will lead to a counterproductive trans-Atlantic race to find a vaccine.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will tell the conference that the world "must work together to build an impregnable shield around all our people".

"The more we pull together and share our expertise, the faster our scientists will succeed," he will say, in remarks released by his office.

"The race to discover the vaccine to defeat this virus is not a competition between countries, but the most urgent shared endeavour of our lifetimes."

Isabelle Marchais, an expert with the Delors Institute thinktank, said the US was ready to "put all its forces into the battle" to win a "vaccine war".

In March, the German government was forced to insist that the rights to coronavirus vaccine research were not for sale, following reports Trump wanted the US to buy exclusive access to one being developed by a German biotech firm.

In an analysis published Monday, Marchais said more than 100 vaccine research projects were under way around the world, including eight at the stage of clinical trials in the US, China and Europe.

"Given the stakes in the current pandemic, some companies -- particularly American and Chinese ones -- are ready to start production before the end of clinical trials in order to be the first ones to get the vaccine to market," she wrote.

Of the 7.5 billion euros target, four billion will go on vaccine development, two billion on the search for a treatment and 1.5 billion for producing tests, the EU said.

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