Coronavirus: How close is France to a vaccine?

The head of France’s official Covid-19 vaccine committee says she is still optimistic that a vaccine will be available "this year"

14 October 2020
A vial with coronavirus vaccine written on it. There are 44 vaccines from around the world at the stage of clinical trials on humansThere are 44 vaccines from around the world at the stage of clinical trials on humans
By Thomas Brent

Dr Marie-Paule Kieny told The Connexion that a vaccine before the end of this year is "plausible", but it will not be a “magic bullet” and coronavirus-related restrictions will remain in place longer.  

She said that even if a vaccine becomes available, supplies of it will be limited until the middle of 2021, and it will mostly be given to “high-risk groups” first.  

She also said that a vaccine will not mean the end of wearing masks, social distancing and barrier gestures. 

“A vaccine is unlikely, in the short-to-medium time, to allow a return to [our] previous life. There is no magic bullet and we are likely to remain constrained in our day-to-day life for many more months,” she said. 

In September, French President Macron said he was hopeful that a vaccine would be available by the end of 2020. 

Earlier this month, however, he backtracked and cast doubt on the possibility. 

“The people... who tell you 'we'll have a vaccine next March or April' are sincerely mistaken,” he said. 

Dr Jean-Paul Hamon, president of the Fédération des Médecins de France, is also reserved about the possibilities of a vaccine in the near future. 

“It’s a new virus, we don’t know what will happen,” he told The Connexion

“The optimistic people are hoping for May. I am pragmatic,” he added.  

He said that there were doubts about vaccines as a number of high-profile candidates have had to be stopped due to cases of volunteers in trials falling ill. 

British pharmaceutical AstraZeneca, which is developing a vaccine with Oxford University, paused its trials last month when a neurological issue was discovered in one volunteer. The vaccine trials resumed shortly after in the UK, South Africa and Brazil, but are still on hold in the US. 

US company Johnson & Johnson, another major candidate in the development of a coronavirus vaccine, paused its trials this week because of an unexplained illness in one of the volunteers. 

Dr Kieny said that she was not concerned by these pauses. 

“It is not uncommon that clinical trials are being put on hold to allow exploration of whether a [serious adverse event] can plausibly be causally associated with the vaccine, so this is not concerning at this stage,” she said. 

“Pausing has, of course, an impact on timelines to authorisation to use, but trials are sometimes allowed to restart relatively quickly, like that of AstraZeneca outside the US.”

The president of major French pharmaceutical company Sanofi says the company is doing everything possible to have a vaccine available by the middle of 2021. 

“If the vaccine is effective and safe, yes, next year, mid-year, the French will be able to be vaccinated", the company’s president Olivier Bogillot told FranceInfo on Tuesday (October 13). 

Sanofi is working on developing two vaccines, with the most advanced one currently in phase 2 of testing. This one is based on viral proteins. The company plans to start phase 3 testing of it in December of this year. 

A guide to understanding coronavirus vaccines

There are 44 vaccines from around the world at the stage of clinical trials on humans, with 11 of those in phase 3 testing, the New York Times states. 

Before a vaccine is made available to the public, it must go through three phases of clinical testing on humans. 

Phase 1: The vaccine is given to a small number of people as a safety check and to verify whether it stimulates the immune system.

Phase 2: Scientists give the vaccine to a larger pool of people, usually hundreds, of varying demographics, to see what effect it has. 

Phase 3: The vaccine is given to thousands, or tens of thousands of people, to see if it is safe and effective. 

The vaccine then has to be approved for use by each country. 

“Regulators in each country review the trial results and decide whether to approve the vaccine or not. During a pandemic, a vaccine may receive emergency use authorisation before getting formal approval,” The New York Times states on its coronavirus vaccine tracking website.

The European Union has set up a mechanism to buy doses of coronavirus vaccines, which will then be distributed to member states when available. 

The EU has already signed agreements to purchase four potential vaccines, from German company CureVac (phase 2), Sanofi (phase 2), Johnson & Johnson (phase 3) and AstraZeneca (phase 3). 

The Pasteur Institute in France has developed a vaccine that will be comercialised by US multinational pharmaceutical company MSD. Phase 1 trials of this were launched in August, phase 2 and 3 will be under the responsibility of MSD and are hoped to start soon.

Read more about coronavirus vaccines:

20,000 volunteer for Covid-19 vaccine trials in France

‘Miracle molecule’ effective against Covid found in Lille

Made-in-France Covid vaccine could cost ‘less than €10’

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