Coronavirus: the race for a vaccine

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The American company Moderna is today launching phase 3 of clinical trials on 30,000 patients, allowing the United States to join China and Europe at the head of the vaccine race. While Emmanuel Macron wants this vaccine to be a “global public good”, a billion-dollar diplomatic battle is unfolding. For economist Nathalie Coutinet, this vaccine sprint is more like “an image race”, mainly between China and the United States.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic has kicked off a vaccine race. Initially, a hundred participants from a multitude of countries took up positions. A few months later, three companies took the lead. They are entering the last phase of clinical trials, where the product is tested on a very large sample of patients, after showing good results during the first two phases.

This Monday, July 27, the American Moderna enters phase 3 of clinical trials, joining the two other vaccine leaders, the University of Oxford, in partnership with the pharmaceutical group AstraZeneca, and the Chinese CanSino. The vaccine, which will be tested on 30,000 people, has received new aid from the US government in the amount of $472 million, bringing the overall envelope to nearly $1 billion to support research.

Billions of dollars in pre-orders

Behind this frantic competition in search of the vaccine that would make it possible to get out of the pandemic crisis, an economic race is emerging. The United States has already spent 5.5 billion dollars, divided between different laboratories, to ensure the receipt of several million doses of the vaccines, which are still only candidate vaccines. Europe, through France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, was quick to respond and disbursed 300 million euros to pre-reserve 300 million doses from the British pharmaceutical industry AstraZeneca. The UK has also stepped in and spent more than 100 million euros to ensure it receives the necessary doses of vaccine.

These staggering figures, which reflect an indirect form of research funding, are more of a “political strategy”, analyzes economist Nathalie Coutinet, professor at the University of Paris 13 and researcher at the Center d’économie de Paris Nord. “These pre-orders are used by pharmaceutical companies to allow them to adapt their production equipment to be able to quickly produce huge quantities of vaccines. Behind this, we see a political logic of states to tell their populations that they are able to meet their health requirements, as was the case with masks or beds in hospitals. “

The vaccine, “a global public good” for Emmanuel Macron

French president Emmanuel Macron has opted for a universalist approach to vaccine research and announced, on June 16, to defend a “vision of a global public good for what the vaccine will be”, after Donald Trump had made an agreement with the Sanofi group to buy millions of doses. “I find Macron’s incantation ridiculous,” Nathalie Coutinet says. A drug is not a common good, there are agreements that have been made and we are far from anything in common. The same thing happened with AIDS where we saw poorer countries having immense difficulties in obtaining antiretroviral drugs. “

On the laboratory side, for the moment there are two opposing views as to the economic impact of their potential future sale. On the one hand, the European and Chinese pharmaceutical companies are announcing that they will sell them at cost price, that is to say at the price of manufacture. On the other, the American vision where companies, like Pfizer, have already announced that they will not sell at cost. “This economic race behind vaccine research is above all a race for image,” says Nathalie Coutinet. This race is mainly for China and the United States to find out who has the highest capacity for innovation. Without denying the financial issues, the battle they are waging is more of an image battle. “

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