EU to spend billions to secure coronavirus vaccine

Brussels plans to pump billions of euros into advance purchase deals with pharmaceutical companies for potential coronavirus vaccines, in a sign of intensifying rich country efforts to secure supplies of any future treatment.

The EU proposes using a “large majority” of a €2.7bn emergency fund for the effort but is also committed to ensuring fair access worldwide to pandemic remedies, according to a draft European Commission strategy.

The document, due to be discussed by EU health ministers on Friday, highlights the urgency of European efforts to escape a pandemic that has hit the populations and economies of many of its countries hard.

“A permanent solution to the Covid-19 crisis is most likely to be brought about by the development and deployment of a safe and effective vaccine against the virus,” said the paper, which is due to be published next week and has been seen by the Financial Times. “Every month gained in the deployment of a vaccine will save many lives, many jobs and many billions of euros.”

Money from an EU fund known as the Emergency Support Instrument would be mobilised — and potentially topped up — to finance manufacturers’ efforts to make vaccines at speed and scale. The funds would be targeted primarily at drugs that will enter clinical trials this year with a view to mass production in 2021.

The new fund would avoid companies whose only manufacturing capacity is in the US, since Washington has indicated it wants US-made medicines for itself, an EU official said.

“Location is important, timing is important and the solidness of the scientific approach is important,” the official said of how the EU would pick the companies it works with. “We need to make sure we are betting on candidates that have a good chance of being successful.”

EU officials insisted they were co-operating rather than competing with a similar initiative set up by Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands — all of which are EU members — to secure access to some of the scores of vaccines under development internationally. The UK, which left the EU in January, is not part of the vaccine scheme.

The commission paper insists the EU will continue “playing its part in ensuring global access to the vaccine, irrespective of wealth”, despite campaigners’ fears of a squeeze on supplies to poorer nations.

“What we want to do is to secure sufficient supplies to our member states, while also taking global responsibility,” said another EU official. “This is, in fact, in our own self-interest, because no region is safe until the virus is under control everywhere.”

France’s Sanofi, the world’s third-largest vaccine-maker, said it welcomed “any EU co-ordinated initiative which would safeguard production of a Covid-19 vaccine in European facilities and ensure vaccine availability for the European citizens and the rest of the world”.

Paul Hudson, Sanofi chief executive, has been calling for Europe to adopt a system similar to the US, where the government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (Barda) has bankrolled the development and manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccines by his company and others.

Mr Hudson created a scandal in France last month and earned a summons to see President Emmanuel Macron when he suggested that Barda’s investments could mean that the US would be first in line for any successful vaccine. He later apologised and pledged that Sanofi would manufacture its Covid-19 vaccines both in the US and Europe to ensure access for all who needed it.

Barda has committed more than $1bn to a joint project between UK pharmaceuticals group AstraZeneca and Oxford university, and about $500m each to US groups Johnson & Johnson and Moderna to expand manufacturing capacity for their vaccines. It has also made smaller investments in projects from academia, and in the supply chain, for example, making a grant of $143m for the making of special vials in which to distribute a vaccine.

When asked about the new EU funding, J&J said it would “continue to work with local and international health authorities, governments, regulators and NGOs”. Moderna did not respond to a request for comment.