Sanofi CEO’s Remarks on Vaccine Plans Stir Outrage in France

(Bloomberg) -
Paul Hudson, chief executive officer of Sanofi, in Shanghai in Nov., 2019. (Bloomberg photo by Qilai Shen)

Sanofi Chief Executive Officer Paul Hudson’s suggestion that the U.S. may get the French drugmaker’s coronavirus vaccine first sparked outrage in France, with one government minister calling the prospect “unacceptable.”

“For us, it would be unacceptable that there be privileged access for this or that country on a pretext that would be a financial pretext,” Junior Economy Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher said in an interview Thursday on Sud Radio.

The U.S. will likely be first in line should Sanofi succeed in developing a vaccine because the country was the first to fund the French company’s research, Hudson said this week in an interview with Bloomberg News. The U.S., which expanded a vaccine partnership with the company in February, expects “that if we’ve helped you manufacture the doses at risk, we expect to get the doses first,” Hudson said.

Hudson’s comments highlighted the conflicts facing multinational companies and governments in the race to develop a vaccine against Covid-19. More than 140 world leaders and experts signed an open letter released by UNAIDS and Oxfam on Thursday, calling for a “people’s vaccine” as well as treatments that would be available swiftly to all for free.

“Nobody should be pushed to the back of the vaccine queue because of where they live or what they earn,” said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Health advocates have warned that the race could leave out countries that can’t afford protective doses, making them vulnerable to mass fatalities and economic wreckage, amid signs some countries will give their population priority.

Supplies of an experimental shot from the University of Oxford will be prioritized for the U.K. before other parts of the world, Pascal Soriot, CEO of AstraZeneca, which will manufacture the vaccine, said last month.

Hudson’s comments on possibly giving Americans a vaccine first sparked broad outrage at home. Prime Minster Edouard Philippe said on Twitter that “equal access to a vaccine is not negotiable.” Olivier Faure, the head of France’s Socialist Party, suggested that Paris-based Sanofi risked being nationalized.

The World Health Organization weighed in on the brewing controversy. Vaccines are “global public goods, which belong to everybody around the world,” Takeshi Kasai, the WHO’s director for the Western Pacific region, said in a media briefing Thursday.

The European Union said its goal was to ensure that any vaccine becomes available worldwide. “The vaccine against Covid-19 should be a global public good,” Stefan De Keersmaecker, health-policy spokesman at the European Commission, the 27-nation EU’s executive arm, told reporters on Thursday in Brussels. “Its access needs to be equitable and universal.”

On this basis, the commission this month organized a fund-raising event at which countries and organizations around the world pledged 7.4 billion euros ($8 billion) for coronavirus vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. The U.S. government didn’t take part in the May 4 event.

Asked on BFM Business TV if the U.S. would be first in line for a Sanofi vaccine, Olivier Bogillot, the head of Sanofi France, said, “No, I don’t confirm it. It’s evident that if Sanofi discovers a medicine, a vaccine against covid-19, and if it’s effective, it will be available to all.”

Sanofi has partnered with U.K. rival GlaxoSmithKline on the project supported by the U.S. and says it could make 600 million doses annually.

Production of Sanofi’s vaccine in the U.S. will mainly go to that market, while capacity elsewhere will cover Europe and the rest of the world, the company said in an emailed statement following Bloomberg’s report. The drugmaker is having “very constructive conversations” with the French and German governments and European Union institutions, it said.

France’s Pannier-Runacher said she immediately contacted Sanofi after Hudson’s interview, and the local head of the company confirmed that the vaccine would be available to all countries, including France, especially because the company has production capacity there.