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Paris is doing human trials but France lags in vaccine race

A Covid-19 vaccine being trialled at the Institut Pasteur in Paris is currently being tested on humans, in a significant step in the process - but France is still seen to be “lagging behind” in the global vaccine race.

The Institut Pasteur trial is one of the foremost projects taking place in France, as numerous countries and laboratories race to produce a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine in record time.

But the creation of a new vaccine is a complicated process, experts have said, with international standing, the power of global pharmaceutical companies, and funding issues all at play. And despite the prestige of the Institut Pasteur, some have said that France as a nation is not currently considered to be a race leader.

It is in human trials now (they started on August 10), but so far only small-scale, 'phase 1' trials. A number of competitors are at the larger-scale phase 2 or phase 3 stages, needed before a vaccine can be made available.

Christophe d’Enfert, scientific director at Institut Pasteur, who previously spoke to The Connexion for July's edition, told newspaper Le Figaro: “Developing a vaccination and selling it is now an industrial issue. It is therefore not surprising that the most promising projects are those supported by the giant laboratory [companies].

“That said, when we look at Russia, or even the United States, we can see that some nations themselves still have a lot to say [on the issue].”

French health minister Olivier Véran has appeared to distance himself from making the vaccination race a “national issue”, preferring to call for a focus on cross-country, international research by private companies.

On August 28, he said: “For the vaccine, we are putting our trust in companies.”

This is in apparent contrast to projects by Russia - which has claimed, controversially, to be pushing ahead with its own vaccine trial - and the United States, which is ploughing billions of dollars into projects by pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca (currently working with the University of Oxford in the UK) and US start-up Moderna.

The move by Institut Pasteur to begin testing on humans is a major part of the process, but France is not the first to reach this stage.

Similarly, even if or when the Institut Pasteur vaccine is declared ready for wider use, it is likely to be developed and produced in the United States by MSD (Merck Sharp and Dohme), which has bought the licence.

Lack of investment?

Marie-Paule Kieny, virologist and president of the Vaccin-Covid-19 committee, says that France is in this position due to a historic lack of investment, saying: “There is a problem of sovereignty in France due to a too-timid investment in research. We relied too much on companies.

“This is one of the lessons we have to take from this crisis. It is not by chance that the Oxford project is more advanced. Public investment put them in that position.”


‘Maybe takes longer...but we have total confidence’

Yet the work being done at the Institut Pasteur is being based on vaccine research dating back 10 years, with experts saying that despite the delays, they have confidence in the eventual findings, and said that the work is still progressing well.

Dr. d’Enfert said: “We have total confidence in this platform. We started on a technology that we know well, and we are using the same platform [vaccine technology] as that against chikungunya and MERS. We are using a vaccine that we know very well, the measles vaccine.

“That is a choice that leans towards efficiency and safety. It maybe takes a little longer to develop than others, but we are not in a race between countries or laboratories, but against the virus.

“Remember that normally it takes more than 10 years to develop a vaccine…[so] we remain extremely fast.”

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are 176 vaccines currently being developed against Covid-19. Of those, 33 are in a very advanced stage, and are already starting to be tested on humans.

There are eight vaccines in the “phase 3” stage, which involves proving that the vaccination is suitable for widespread use. These include the Oxford-AstraZeneca project; the Moderna project; five Chinese groups, including one associated with the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the Institut Gamaleïa in Moscow.

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