Europe to unveil plan that prioritises coronavirus vaccine access for its own citizens

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The European Union is urging global leaders to agree on joint advance purchases of potential vaccines against the new coronavirus.
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On a visit to a Sanofi plant, French President Emmanuel Macron has set out plans to boost domestic production of vaccines.
The EU executive plans to pay for up to six potential vaccines. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON - The European Commission, the European Union's executive body, intends to unveil on Wednesday (June 17) its own plans for the development of a coronavirus vaccine.

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is scheduled to pledge up to €2.7 billion (S$4.25 billion) of emergency funding into a series of advance purchase deals with pharmaceutical companies researching potential vaccines.

The funds would target drugs entering clinical trials this year, to ensure that the Union's 500 million citizens benefit from their mass production by 2021.

But it is not clear how this Europe-wide effort fits with similar vaccine-support plans launched by individual European states.

The move also exposes the EU to charges of hypocrisy, since it criticised previous plans by the United States to hoard vaccines for American citizens, only to end up doing precisely the same thing now.

EU health ministers last week backed a plan to offer cash to European pharmaceutical companies researching potential vaccines.

"At times when the world is taking steps to get access to a future vaccine, the EU must show a united front in these global efforts," said Mrs Stella Kyriakides, the EU Commissioner responsible for health, at the conclusion of a ministerial teleconference which took place last Friday.

Pharmaceutical companies will learn later on Wednesday how this money will be distributed, but the broad outline of what the EU proposes to do is already known.

The plan would offer financial guarantees to pharmaceutical companies which otherwise face big losses if their vaccines are not successful.

The EU executive plans to pay for up to six potential vaccines in deals which will tie pharmaceutical producers to providing a set number of doses when and if these become available.

In effect, the EU accepts that some of its money would go to waste, in return for getting an assurance that European citizens will be in the front of the queue once an effective vaccine is developed by any of the companies it is backing.

All vaccines currently in clinical trials - and therefore appearing to be more promising - are, in principle, eligible.

Tellingly, however, European funding will not be extended to vaccine research and development produced exclusively in the US.

The European Commission is right to point out that its refusal to back US vaccine research is only due to the American government's already announced decision that it will not allow sales abroad of US-manufactured vaccines before all American domestic needs are met.

The commission also insists that far from seeking exclusivity, the EU will continue "playing its part in ensuring global access to the vaccine, irrespective of wealth".

A vaccine, said Health Commissioner Kyriakides, "needs to be accessible to all in Europe and around the globe".

Nevertheless, the fact is that Europe is now prioritising access for its own citizens with the same methods it criticised the Americans for applying.

Europe's funding model is also like the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which has also bankrolled the development and manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccines.

And although there is a European pledge to share a future vaccine with other nations, there is no indication how this will be done, or how a potential vaccine will be priced to provide access for poorer countries.

Nor is it very clear how Britain, which is home to key drug makers AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, will be able to tap the funding.

In theory, the British, who left the EU at the start of this year, can continue collaborating under transition arrangements.

Yet these arrangements expire at the end of this year, and the EU vaccine support programme is scheduled to last for longer.

But the biggest question is how the EU scheme would work in parallel with similar national initiatives set up by Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Britain, all of which are designed to provide preferential access to vaccines.

The European Commission denies that there is any contradiction. Still, national governments continue to push their own national pharmaceutical champions, on the understanding that individual European nations may be first to benefit.

France's Sanofi, the world's third-largest vaccine maker, was recently chastised by President Emmanuel Macron after it suggested that access to US funds could mean that the US would be first in line for any of its successful vaccines.

And this week, the German government announced that it will be taking a 23 per cent stake in CureVac, a local manufacturer, to ensure that its vaccine research programme remains in German hands.

A number of "vaccine races" are taking place at the same time - between Europe and other continents, and between individual European nations.

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