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Covid-19: Sanofi backpedals on US vaccine priority after French outrage

A Sanofi sign outside the French drugmaker's Paris headquarters.
A Sanofi sign outside the French drugmaker's Paris headquarters. © Christian Hartmann, REUTERS

French drugmaker Sanofi said on Thursday it would ensure a future vaccine against Covid-19 reaches all regions of the world at the same time, a day after its CEO angered the French government by saying the US would enjoy priority access.

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"There will be no particular advance given to any country," Serge Weinberg, chairman of the French pharmaceutical giant, told France 2 television.

"We are organised with several manufacturing units. Some of them are in the United States but even more of them are in Europe and France," Weinberg said, adding that earlier comments by the company’s chief executive had been “altered”.

Paul Hudson, Sanofi’s CEO, told Bloomberg on Wednesday that vaccine doses produced in the United States could go to US patients first, given the country had supported the research financially.

His comments prompted outrage in France, with French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe stressing that Sanofi was “profoundly French” and warning that equal access to a vaccine was “non-negotiable”.

On Thursday, Hudson said he was sorry that his earlier remarks had created such a storm. He said it was vital that any coronavirus vaccine reach all regions. But he stood firm on the need for a faster, more collaborative European effort in the hunt for a vaccine to the new coronavirus that has killed over 298,000 globally and crippled economies worldwide.

"I have been campaigning on European readiness to treat Covid-19 for months, building capacity in Europe, making sure we are ready, getting governments in the EU aligned," Hudson told an event organised by the Financial Times.

Washington DC correspondent Kethevane Gorejestani on the Sanofi vaccine hunt

Sanofi, which has urged stronger European coordination in the hunt for a vaccine and has US financial support, clarified that any such vaccine would be made available to all.

There is currently no vaccine and no known treatment for Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus. Drugmakers are racing to develop what would be a lucrative prize, but have sought financial support to mitigate the risks.

Sanofi is working on two vaccine projects against Covid-19. One is with British rival GlaxoSmithKline Plc that has received financial support from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) of the US Health Department, and the other with US company Translate Bio that will use a different technology.

‘Clumsy’

Given the support from BARDA, vaccine doses produced by Sanofi in the United States are expected to go to US patients first, a prospect that has raised concern in Europe.

"A vaccine against Covid-19 should be a public good for the world. The equal access of all to the virus is non-negotiable," Philippe said on Thursday.

Philippe said he had reinforced this message to Sanofi's chairman who in return had assured the prime minister of the distribution in France of any Sanofi vaccine.

Hudson's initial comments upset President Emmanuel Macron, an Élysée palace official said. A presidency official will meet with Sanofi representatives next week, the official added.

Earlier in the day, French Health Minister Olivier Véran said he had been "reassured" by a conversation with the head of Sanofi, describing Hudson’s comments on Wednesday as “clumsy”.

"I believe it was a phrase, as far as I can understand, that was a bit clumsy, and perhaps taken out of context, and I was quite reassured by the conversation I had with the head of Sanofi," Veran told C News television.

Sanofi has 18 production sites in France and operates in 31 other countries.

>> Covid-19 forces France to look at relocating its pharmaceutical industry

Hudson said Europe lacked a body akin to BARDA.

"That model does not exist in Europe," he said, even though there was support from governments to establish one.

The controversy has raised questions over whether Europe has been too slow to respond in terms of organising and funding vaccine research. Sanofi reiterated on Thursday that the United States had moved more quickly in this regard.

The charity Oxfam said pharmaceutical companies should not be able to decide "who lives and who dies".

Officials meeting at the World Health Assembly next week must demand that vaccines and tests are patent-free, Oxfam said in a statement. They should also be distributed equitably to all countries.

"Governments must work together to stop corporations profiteering from the pandemic and save the lives of people across the globe," Oxfam said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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