As Europe emerges from lockdown, and fears grow of a second wave of coronavirus infections, governments are in a heated race to clinch a COVID-19 vaccine that can stop the pandemic.
As is often the case, there’s talk about a common European approach – and there are moves by countries to be first in line to benefit from a vaccine if and when it becomes available.
French President Emmanuel Macron visited a Sanofi manufacturing facility near Lyon on Tuesday, where he announced €200 million euros in government investments to reduce France's dependence on other countries for vaccines and medicines.
Sanofi found itself at the heart of a political firestorm last month when it said the United States had been first to fund its vaccine research and could get priority access as a result. CEO Paul Hudson was subsequently summoned to the French president’s office to explain his comments.
On Tuesday, with Macron at his side, he detailed a plan to invest €610 million in vaccine research and production in France.
"Sanofi’s heart beats in France," Hudson said in a statement. "By investing in a new industrial site and a R&D centre, Sanofi positions France at the core of its strategy, aiming to make France a world-class centre of excellence in vaccine research and production."
Sanofi plans to create a new plant north of Lyon designed to "secure vaccine supplies in the event of new pandemics," the company said. The facility will be capable of producing three to four vaccines simultaneously, compared to one currently.
Alliances and pre-orders
Sanofi’s move comes just days after rival drugmaker, AstraZeneca struck a deal with Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands to supply up to 400 million doses of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine as early as October. All other EU member states will have the chance to join the alliance.
The deal to produce a vaccine is the latest in a series, even despite there being no guarantee it will be effective in preventing coronavirus infections.
Because of the urgency posed by the pandemic, which has already infected at least 8 million people worldwide and killed more than 437,000, AstraZeneca is building up its manufacturing capacity while human trials, in partnership with the University of Oxford, are still underway.
"Obviously, it’s a financial risk. But it’s the only way to be ready to deliver the vaccine in October if the clinical results are positive," said AstraZeneca CEO, Pascal Soriot.
Deals and pre-orders like these help limit the financial risks for pharmaceutical companies while giving governments some assurance that they will get their hands on vaccines when they become available – and that they won’t be scrambling to secure them as they did with facemasks, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE).
It’s a crowded race. About a dozen potential vaccines are currently in the early stages of being tested in thousands of people. There is no certainty any of them will work, but there are growing hopes that at least some might - and that they could be available by the end of the year.
Some scientists, however, are skeptical that a vaccine can be ready as soon as AstraZeneca claims.
"Nothing has been published that would explain why this vaccine can be put on the market so quickly. They may have to withdraw everything if their vaccine does not protect and does not meet the required safety criteria," said Professor Yves Gaudin, virologist and director of research at France's National Scientific Research Centre.
Still, it’s a risk that governments are willing to take to stop COVID-19 from overwhelming their health systems and paralysing their economies.
Working hand in hand?
At a donor summit in early May, EU and world leaders pledged billions to speed up the development of a COVID-19 vaccine and committed to ensuring it’s made affordable and available to all.
But with the EU and other powers making separate deals with pharmaceutical giants to secure vaccines, it remains unclear how well such an alliance will work in practice.
The United States has already launched "Operation Warp Speed," a private-public partnership funding pharmaceutical research with the aim of securing enough doses of a COVID-19 vaccine for Americans by January 2021.
On Monday, the German government announced it was taking a 23 per cent stake (worth €300 million) in CureVac, a German company also working on a potential COVID-19 vaccine rumoured to have been approached by the US government in March.
"For me and for the whole German government, it is ... absolutely elementary that we preserve and strengthen promising key industries in Germany, be they digital, artificial intelligence industries; electric batteries; the chemical industry, the steel industry, and many others,'" German Economy Minister, Peter Altmaier said.
"That goes in particular for biotechnology and life sciences," he added.
Where are we with COVID-19 vaccines?
US biotech company Moderna has already announced it will enter Phase III – the last stage – of its clinical trials in July.
AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford are testing their vaccine candidate on some 50,000 volunteers and expect to have results on its effectiveness by the autumn.
Johnson & Johnson expects it will be able to deliver one billion doses next year, while Sanofi is working on two different vaccines that should soon start pre-clinical trials, both of which should be available by late 2021.
Scientists at Imperial College London are also set to start testing their experimental shot in volunteers this week. The research is backed by £41 million (€45 million) in UK government funding.