Sanofi Chairman Weinberg steps in after CEO says U.S. set to get first COVID-19 vaccines

Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson set off a firestorm this week by saying the U.S. would get priority for its COVID-19 vaccine thanks to early its R&D funding. But now the company's chairman, Serge Weinberg, has intervened, stating unequivocally that countries will be "served at the same time."

In an interview with France 2 TV, Weinberg said he’s “going to be extremely clear: There will be no particular advance for any country.” 

The statements followed a tense couple of days for the company, starting Wednesday when Hudson told Bloomberg News the U.S. would have initial access to Sanofi’s COVID-19 vaccine—if it works—because the country was the first to invest in the program. 

Pushback against those remarks came swiftly. France's junior economy minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher told Sud Radio that “privileged access” for various countries would be “unacceptable,” Reuters reported. French president Emmanuel Macron was "affected" by the remarks and is slated to meet with Hudson next week, Business Insider reports

France’s prime minister Édouard Philippe tweeted that “a vaccine against #COVID19 should be a global public good,” according to a translation. “Equal access for all to vaccine is not negotiable.” He also reminded Weinberg that Sanofi is a "great deeply French company."

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As numerous vaccine candidates race ahead, experts have started to raise tough questions about access. In his Bloomberg interview, Hudson said the U.S. expected first dibs because of its $30 million investment back in February.

As part of the deal, the government expects that “if we’ve helped you manufacture the doses at risk, we expect to get the doses first,” Hudson told Bloomberg.

Shortly after those remarks made their rounds, a Sanofi spokesman said the company's U.S. factories would supply doses in the U.S., while the company's factories elsewhere would provide supplies for the rest of the world. All of the discussions hinge, of course, on whether the vaccine will work in clinical testing.

Several other drugmakers have voiced varying perspectives about distribution. In a Washington Post interview, Johnson & Johnson R&D chief Paul Stoffels didn't commit to U.S. shipment timelines. He said the company intends to evaluate global needs for a potential rollout. AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot has said its University of Oxford-partnered project would prioritize the U.K. Pfizer’s vaccine R&D head Kathrin Jansen told the Post that the global community, including groups such as the World Health Organization, should determine where initial vaccine doses are shipped. 

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That process may be underway. In a new open letter Thursday, 140 world leaders committed to universal access. The leaders said it’s “not the time to allow the interests of the wealthiest corporations and governments to be placed before the universal need to save lives, or to leave this massive and moral task to market forces.” 

Around 100 COVID-19 vaccines are in development, and at least eight are in human testing. Even as researchers advance the programs through the development process, teams are also working to scale up a massive manufacturing effort to deliver hundreds of millions—or billions—of doses quickly if the candidates show efficacy.