French pharma giant Sanofi to give US preference on future Covid-19 vaccine

A man wearing a protective face mask walks past Sanofi's Paris headquarters on April 24, 2020.
A man wearing a protective face mask walks past Sanofi's Paris headquarters on April 24, 2020. © Charles Platiau, REUTERS

The US will have priority access to a Covid-19 vaccine if and when Sanofi develops one, the French pharmaceutical giant told Bloomberg on Wednesday, explaining that the US offered more money to fund vaccine research.


“The US government has the right to the largest pre-order because it’s invested in taking the risk,” Sanofi’s Chief Executive Officer Paul Hudson said in an interview with Bloomberg News.

Sanofi is one of the biggest players among dozens of companies racing to develop a vaccine against the disease that has killed at least 290,000 people worldwide.

It has partnered with UK rival GlaxoSmithKline Plc on the project supported by the US and says it could make 600 million doses annually — a capacity that Hudson said he aims to double.

The Sanofi CEO warned that Europe risks falling behind unless it steps up its own efforts to seek protection against the pandemic.

More than 90 vaccines are currently being developed against the disease, eight of them in the clinical trial phase. But experts say the large-scale manufacture of a successful vaccine may be as challenging as developing one.

The European Commission is weighing using a $2.6 billion emergency fund to boost pharmaceutical labs' capacity, fearing that even if a Covid-19 vaccine is developed the EU may not be able to produce enough shots, a document seen by Reuters shows.

"As long as vaccine production capacity is limited," the EU should devise a plan to ramp up manufacturing and initially distribute shots only to those most in need, the internal EU document says.

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides floated the ideas for the first time last week to European Union health ministers, who broadly supported them, according to two officials who attended their videoconference. But no decision has yet been made.

Limited capacity

The head of Sanofi warned the EU in April that in the current pandemic the manufacturing of vaccines posed more challenges than their actual development.

"There is less concern about finding a successful vaccine than there is about making the volumes needed," Hudson said.

Estimating production capacity needs is hard, because nobody yet knows the composition of a potential Covid-19 shot or how many doses would be needed per person.

But since vaccine production is limited, most states in the 27-nation bloc agree that a potential Covid-19 shot should initially be made available only to the elderly and other groups most vulnerable to the disease, officials said. Medics and nurses would also be on the priority list.

A sudden surge in vaccine demand caused by the development of a Covid-19 shot could put labs under extreme strain and also reduce the availability of other vaccines that are regularly needed to immunize people against the seasonal flu or childhood diseases such as measles or rota virus.

At a meeting last week, EU health experts discussed joining forces to buy flu shots before the next influenza season, "which is even more important due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic", according to public minutes.

Discussions over joint procurement schemes for vaccines highlight the EU's anxiety over its limited access to vital medical supplies, and the risk that EU states might otherwise bid against each other for access.

Many countries experienced shortages of medical equipment, devices and drugs to treat Covid-19 patients in March and April, and the EU fears shortages could occur again when a Covid-19 vaccine is available, especially if it is developed elsewhere.

The United States and China have been wary of supporting a global funding campaign promoted by the EU that raised $8 billion to research, manufacture and distribute a possible vaccine and treatments for Covid-19 earlier in May.


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