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French pharma group's Covid vaccine row explained

Sanofi moves quickly to ward off criticism after CEO said USA would get priority status for any vaccine it develops

French pharmaceutical group Sanofi has walked back on a claims that any COVID-19 vaccine it develops would go first to the USA, insisting its COVID-19 vaccine will be made available in all countries when it is ready, hours after the company's CEO said the first shipments would head to the United States.

What did the company say?

Paul Hudson, Sanofi's CEO, had said in an interview that the US, which has invested $30million in the company's research into a vaccine, had the "right to the largest pre-orders", “because it’s invested in taking the risk.”

Hours later, after an angry reaction from the French government, the company said that any vaccine, when it is ready, would be made available in all countries.
“Equal access for all to the vaccine is not negotiable,” French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in a tweet, while President Emmanuel Macron was described by his office as also being “upset” by the comments.

Why is this controversial?

The reaction was immediate. France has said equal access to any coronavirus vaccine developed by Sanofi was non-negotiable.

"For us, it would be unacceptable for there to be privileged access from this or that country under a pretext that would be a pecuniary pretext," Secretary of State for the Economy Agnès Pannier-Runacher told Sud Radio.

Sanofi receives an estimated €110million to €130million from the state for the research tax credit and the competitiveness and employment tax credit (CICE), a controversial tax break introduced by former President François Hollande.

Critics also point out Sanofi's revenues in France depend largely on sales of medicines reimbursed by the French health insurance system. The company recently announced the payment of €4billion to shareholders.

Earlier this year, French prosecutors charged the company with aggravated fraud and unintentionally causing injury after a three-year probe into the company’s response to concerns over the epilepsy drug Depakine, which has been linked to birth defects when taken during pregnancy.

How has Sanofi reacted to the criticism?

It moved quickly to head off the bad publicity. The head of Sanofi France, Olivier Bogillot walked back Mr Hudson's comments a matter of hours later. In an interview with BFMTV, he said: "Obviously, if Sanofi discovers a vaccine that is effective against Covid-19, it will be accessible to everyone.

"The Americans and Europeans will have it at the same time. (...) For me, the debate is closed: the vaccine, if it is discovered, will be made available to French patients."

And the global company - which has production centres in the United States and Europe, particularly in France - added in a statement: “We have always been committed in these unprecedented circumstances to make our vaccine accessible to everyone.”

How close is the pharmaceutical company to developing a vaccine?

It is some way off. Dozens of vaccine candidates are in earlier stages of development around the world, yet a vaccine is likely to be a year or more away.

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