May 14, 2020 / 10:29 AM / 17 days ago

France defends equal access to any vaccine as U.S. eyes its own plans

PARIS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - France said on Thursday that the world’s nations would have equal access to any novel coronavirus vaccine developed by pharmaceuticals giant Sanofi (SASY.PA), a day after the CEO suggested that Americans would likely be the first in line.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an interview, said he hoped that any vaccine developed would be shared worldwide.

“I hope that we will all collectively find a way to produce this at high volume to get it all across the world and make sure that every citizen that needs access to a vaccine can get it as quickly as possible,” the top U.S. diplomat told Israel’s Kan 11 News during a trip there.

Scientists are rushing to find treatments and vaccines for a disease that has killed nearly 300,000 people worldwide, including more than 84,000 in the United States. Even as nations grapple with the ongoing pandemic, experts are weighing the impact any potential vaccine may have on a disease that has already laid bare the world’s inequities and power struggles.

“A vaccine against COVID-19 should be a public good for the world,” French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Thursday, adding that “equal access of all” was “non-negotiable.”

He was speaking after Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson told Bloomberg News on Wednesday: “The U.S. government has the right to the largest preorder because it’s invested in taking the risk.” He apologised on Thursday, saying it was vital that any coronavirus vaccine reach all regions.

Hudson will meet French President Emmanuel Macron next week. Macron was upset with Hudson’s earlier comments, according to an Elysee official.

Hudson has been critical of Europe’s capacity to develop and manufacture a vaccine for months. He has called for a European version of the U.S. agency that is helping Sanofi develop its vaccine.

World leaders in April pledged to accelerate their work on COVID-19, the disease caused by the highly contagious novel coronavirus, but the United States did not participate.

The United States also ignored a pledge last week by world leaders and organizations to spend $8 billion to manufacture and distribute a possible vaccine and treatments.

More than 90 vaccines are currently being developed globally, with eight in the clinical trial phase. But experts say the process could take years and may not happen at all.

There is still no vaccine for HIV, which emerged in the early 1980s, or SARS, a coronavirus that hit Asia in 2002.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday reiterated that he believed there would be a vaccine by the end of the year, in contrast to the top U.S. infectious disease expert, and said that he was already working on plans to distribute it.

FILE PHOTO: Golden Statues at the Trocadero square near the Eiffel tower wear protective masks during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Paris, France, May 2, 2020. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

“I think we’re going to have a vaccine by the end of the year and I think distribution will take place almost simultaneously because we’ve geared up the military,” he told reporters at the White House, adding that more details were expected on Friday.

He also said there would be a U.S. announcement regarding the World Health Organization as soon as next week but gave no other details. The World Health Assembly, the WHO’s decision making body, meets May 18 and 19.

Trump, who faces re-election in November after winning in 2016 on an “America First” agenda, has urged a quick re-opening of the U.S. economy despite the lack of approved treatment, vaccine or widespread testing.

Anthony Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases, on Tuesday said a vaccine would not likely be available by the autumn but that he was cautiously optimistic there would eventually be one.

“It’s definitely not a long shot,” Fauci told a U.S. Senate panel, adding that a vaccine was “more likely than not ... because this is a virus that induces an immune response and people recover.”

‘A FAIR AND EQUITABLE PLAN’

More than 4.39 million people have been reported to be infected globally and 296,847 have died, according to a Reuters tally. The United States has the highest death toll at 84,256.

Sanofi is working on two vaccines projects, one with British rival GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK.L) that has received financial support from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) of the U.S. Health Department and another with U.S. company Translate Bio that will use different technology.

A U.S. whistleblower who was removed last month as the director of BARDA told the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday that he was concerned about U.S. coronavirus preparedness, including vaccination efforts.

“There’s no one company that can produce enough for our country or for the world. It’s going to be limited supplies. We need to have a strategy and plan in place now to make sure that we can not only fill that vaccine, make it, distribute it, but administer in a fair and equitable plan,” Richard Bright said.

The WHO is leading the global initiative to develop a vaccine, and its spokeswoman Margaret Harris told a briefing in Geneva that while some treatments in very early studies seem to help “we do not have anything that can kill or stop the virus.”

The European Medicines Agency (EMA), which approves medicines for the European Union, said on Thursday a vaccine could be approved in about a year in an “optimistic” scenario.

“For vaccines, since the development has to start from scratch ... we might look from an optimistic side in a year from now, so beginning of 2021,” the EMA’s head of vaccines, Marco Cavaleri, said in Amsterdam.

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But the EU, some of whose members have been among the hardest hard hit by the pandemic, fears it may not have sufficient supplies, especially if a vaccine were developed in the United States or China. Its executive branch, the European Commission, is weighing using a $2.6 billion emergency fund to boost pharmaceutical labs’ capacity.

Trump on Thursday said he had signed an executive order to expand U.S. domestic production of certain strategic resources relevant to the outbreak, but he gave no other details.

Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Steve Holland in Washington, Michael Erman in New York, Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem, Emma Farge in Geneva and Henri-Pierre André and Jean-Stéphane Brosse in Paris; Writing by Nick Macfie and Susan Heavey; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Daniel Wallis

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