Vaccine: A Lesson for Europe

The controversy sparked by Sanofi highlights the pressing need for the European Union to equip itself in the area of vaccine research to be able to stand up to Chinese-American competition.

“First come, first served”: The old saying, as will not come as a surprise to anyone, befits President Donald Trump rather well, given that he is under strong suspicion of seeking to apply his “America First” doctrine in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, with several pharmaceutical laboratories working around the clock to this end. Today, the crucial role of this hypothetical vaccine, the only tool actually capable of reviving societies and restarting the global economy, is fueling speculation of all kinds − not to mention concerns over the potential for a nationalist-minded country or profit-seeking big pharma entity to monopolize the vaccine.

Against this backdrop, what else could Sanofi Chief Executive Officer Paul Hudson’s remarks, reported by Bloomberg on Wednesday, May 13, giving priority to the United States when the vaccine will be developed, do other than arouse French anger? On Thursday, as the controversy deepened, France’s president stressed that any COVID-19 vaccine should be a “global public good exempt from market forces” and summoned executives from Sanofi, a French pharmaceutical company whose business has become predominantly international, to pay a visit to the Elysée Palace to explain themselves the following week.


What did Hudson say exactly? That the U.S. “has the right to the largest pre-order [of vaccines] because it’s invested in taking the risk.” Indeed, the U.S. federal government invested $1 billion via a body whose role is to secure the country against bioterrorist threats and pandemics, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, through a public-private partnership with several laboratories – including Sanofi – working on developing COVID-19 vaccines.

Vaccine research and development is costly, especially when projects fail; public sector money helps pharmaceutical laboratories go faster and further. Trump has to be given credit for the fact that, despite all the errors he made in handling this crisis, he very early on grasped the value of a vaccine.

On Thursday, Sanofi’s executives made a number of backpedaling statements and clarifications to the media, with Hudson maintaining that when it comes to distributing a vaccine, “it was never a choice” between the U.S. and Europe. He added that if one of the vaccines Sanofi is working on turns out to be effective, the company would need to leverage its global manufacturing capacity, including in France, where it enjoys a 150 million euros ($163.46 million) tax credit, to be able to produce enough to meet worldwide demand.

Sanofi’s chief executive also called attention to the fact that he had unsuccessfully campaigned in Brussels for the EU to create its own BARDA-like organization. This gets to the heart of the issue, as Europe is painfully discovering, in the midst of the pandemic, that it has not equipped itself with the tools of sovereignty.

When it comes to developing a digital tracking application, which pits Europe against dominant players like Google and Apple, or a vaccine, the Continent is overwhelmingly dependent on the outside world. Certainly, the EU (belatedly) launched a global fundraising call to raise money for vaccine research and brought in 7.4 billion euros in funds. Europeans are right to continue to defend multilateralism, but this should not prevent them from organizing themselves to defend their interests in the face of the increasingly fierce competition China and the U.S. are waging, and for which the global race to develop a vaccine is the final challenge.

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