France’s slow vaccine roll-out has been the subject of anguished debate since early January, when it became clear that the country’s cautious approach was leaving it behind its neighbours – the UK in particular. According to Our World in Data, the UK has vaccinated almost 11 million people, whereas France has only vaccinated 1.6 million against coronavirus. Against this background, the news Institut Pasteur had abandoned its plan to develop a COVID-19 vaccine with the US pharma giant Merck has set off intense recriminations over the place of science in a country that takes pride in its history of scientific discovery.
Sanofi and GSK also acknowledged its main vaccine was less effective than anticipated, delaying its possible roll-out until the end of the year.
The company said it will now help its competitors BioNTech and Pfizer produce their vaccine amid a shortfall in production capacity.
The failure of the home-grown COVID-19 vaccine project is bringing national self-doubt over French research capabilities.
A report released by the French Council of Economic Analysis (CAE) last week concluded that despite the country’s efforts, France still faces a “significant delay” in catching up with pharmaceutical advances elsewhere, including in the US, Britain and Germany, where researchers have developed effective coronavirus vaccines.
According to the Washington Post, Germany, where BioNTech is headquartered, dedicates over twice as much annual public funding as France to health research and development.
While funding rose by more than 10 percent in Germany and Britain between 2011 and 2018, it decreased by almost a third in France, according to CAE.
Shortfalls in public spending have not been made up for by private funding, either, which remains less common in France than in the US.
Also, the kind of collaboration between universities and private companies that has proved effective in Britain is less advanced in France.
Margaret Kyle, one of the authors of the CAE report and an economist at Mines ParisTech, said: “There’s just a lot of pushback to even small changes.”
To make things worse for French President Emmanuel Macron, it was revealed yesterday that a French start-up received an order from the UK for 40 million doses of its vaccine yesterday – with London to now be given priority access to the vaccine over Paris and the rest of the EU.
The vaccine is expected to be in the UK by June this year but may not be available in France until 2022.
President and Chief Business Officer of biotech company Valneva, Franck Grimaud, has estimated that the first vaccines will be delivered to the UK as soon as medical trials are complete, which he believes will be as early as June 2021.
However, vaccines are only likely to be available to the EU around the beginning of 2022, even though the company is based in Saint-Herblain, Pays de la Loire, France.
The regional council president of the Pays de la Loire region has angrily blamed the government for a missed opportunity to provide the vaccine to local people.
President Christelle Morançais said: “It is vital that the state proves it has much more agility and reactivity when it comes to supporting and defending our companies at the forefront of fighting the virus.
“France has missed the chance of ‘its’ own Covid vaccine.”
“I have a terrible feeling of waste and of incomprehension in the face of this French and European failure.”
Mr Macron has recently criticised the UK’s vaccination strategy, questioning its effectiveness and arguing France is being “safer”.
The French President claimed the AstraZeneca jabs appeared to be “quasi-ineffective” on people older than 65 – just hours after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved it in the whole of Europe.
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He also condemned Britain’s decision to extend the time between people receiving their first and second dose, from 28 days to 12 weeks.
The 43-year-old insisted the “goal is not to have the biggest number of first injections”, and claimed “we are lying to people when we tell them they’ve been vaccinated by getting one injection of a vaccine that consists of two injections”.
However, Scientists at the University of Oxford vindicated the UK’s decision to maximise the number of people receiving their first dose.
Tests showed the vaccine has a 76 percent efficacy against symptomatic infection for three months after a single dose, with greater effectiveness when a second is given later.
Greg Clark, the chairman of the Commons’ science committee, said: “It seems that President Macron has made an error. It is nonsense.”
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith added: “His reckless remarks damage public health by playing into the hands of the anti-vaxxers on a false premise.
“In this respect, he out-trumps Donald Trump.”