Paris: The French government cried foul Thursday after its homegrown pharmaceutical giant Sanofi said it would reserve first shipments of any COVID-19 vaccine for the United States, slamming the move as "unacceptable" in a crisis that has killed nearly 300,000 people worldwide.
Sanofi's chief executive Paul Hudson sparked the controversy after announcing that US patients would get first choice because their government was helping to fund the vaccine search.
"The US government has the right to the largest pre-order because it's invested in taking the risk," Hudson, a British citizen who took over last year, told Bloomberg News in an interview published late Wednesday.
"That's how it will be because they've invested to try and protect their population, to restart their economy," he said. "I've been campaigning in Europe to say the US will get vaccines first."
His comments drew outrage from officials and health experts, who noted that the Paris-based multinational has benefited from tens of millions of euros in research credits from the French state in recent years.
"For us, it would be unacceptable for there to be privileged access to such and such a country for financial reasons," France's deputy finance minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher told Sud Radio Thursday.
NGOs also denounced Sanofi's move, accusing the firm of trying to blackmail France into contributing more money, and of fuelling a global race among major powers to be the first to immunise their populations, potentially at the expense of poorer nations.
"This shows the need to urgently set global rules on these future treatments that will guarantee that tests and treatments will not be patented and be distributed fairly to all countries," Oxfam France said in a statement, calling Sanofi's plan "quite simply scandalous."
Around 140 former and current world leaders and health experts on Thursday called on officials to ensure that any vaccines founds be made available "for all people, in all countries, free of charge."
"Now is not the time to allow the interests of the wealthiest corporations and governments to be placed before the universal need to save lives," the signatories said ahead of the World Health Organization's annual meeting next week.
"Access to vaccines and treatments as global public goods are in the interests of all humanity."
'EU must be effective'
Sanofi's chief in France, Olivier Bogillot, sought to play down his boss's comments on Thursday, saying "the goal is to have this vaccine available to the US as well as France and Europe at the same time."
But that would only be possible "if Europeans work as quickly as the Americans," Bogillot told BFM television, saying the US government had pledged to spend "several hundreds of millions of euros."
"The Americans have been effective in this period. The EU must be just as effective in helping us make this vaccine available quickly," he said.
In April, Sanofi joined forces with Britain's GlaxoSmithKline to work on a vaccine, though trials have not yet started, and any successful treatment would be available toward the end of next year at the earliest.
Their project is being funded in part by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) of the US Department of Health and Human Services.
It is one of the dozens of vaccine projects underway to combat the coronavirus outbreak that originated in China last December.
This month, the European Union spearheaded a global effort to raise about $8 billion for research on coronavirus vaccines, treatment and testing, a move welcomed by the WHO.
But Washington pointedly refused to participate, potentially undermining the effort.
US President Donald Trump has announced he will slash funding to the WHO, which he accused of acting too late on the COVID-19 threat and of mishandling efforts to stem the outbreak.
Trump also said this month: "We are very confident that we're going to have a vaccine... by the end of the year," a prediction that few health experts consider likely.
The European Medicines Agency said Thursday that a vaccine could be ready in a year's time under an "optimistic" scenario.