French politicians have reacted with dismay to news that the prestigious Pasteur Institute is abandoning its main coronavirus vaccine after disappointing test results.
Researchers at the institute said clinical trials on its vaccine had shown it was less successful in combatting the virus than hoped. It had been trying to adapt an existing vaccine used against measles, in partnership with the American company Merck.
The announcement came as a further blow to the French government which is facing criticism over the slow rollout of its vaccine programme, and the news that laboratories producing authorised vaccines, including Pfizer, are struggling to keep up with demand.
France’s other pharmaceutical giant Sanofi has said its vaccine will not be ready until the end of this year, again because of disappointing initial results.
The failures and delays have sparked soul-searching in France, once a world leader in medical breakthroughs and birthplace of microbiology pioneer Louis Pasteur, who invented vaccines against rabies and anthrax.
The centre-right Les Républicains parliamentary group tweeted: “In a race against the clock, the Pasteur Institute throws in the towel on its main vaccine project, while Sanofi announces a delay until the end of the year, because of a lack of efficiency after so many grand announces. This scientific decline is a slap in the face.”
Bastien Lachaud, an MP for the hard-left La France Insoumise, was equally withering. “No vaccine in the country of Pasteur! What a symbol. This is where the impoverishing of public research, the primacy of the private sector and the triumph of management and profit are leading,” he tweeted.
Centrist François Bayrou, an ally of President Emmanuel Macron, lashed out at what he described as a “brain drain” that was causing a national humiliation.
“It’s a sign of the decline of the country and this decline is unacceptable,” Bayrou, head of the MoDem party, who was named commissioner for long-term government planning, told France Inter radio.
He referred to Stéphane Bancel, the French national who heads the US-based biotech firm Moderna, whose vaccine was the second given approval for use in the US and Europe.
“It is not acceptable that our best researchers, the most brilliant of our researchers, are sucked up by the American system,” Bayrou added.
The vaccine issue has touched several raw nerves in France where some see it as an assault on the country’s self-esteem.
Bayrou said France had to boost its “public actions including research”. “It’s about money, but it’s money well spent and a necessary investment,” Bayrou added.
Sanofi, the world’s fifth largest pharmaceutical company by prescription drug sales, caused a storm last year when the chief executive Paul Hudson – a British citizen – said the US would get any vaccine it produced before the rest of the world.
Earlier this month, Sanofi announced 1,700 job cuts, including 1,000 in France, 400 of them in research.
“This is a shame for a group like Sanofi … and it’s a humiliation for France, not able to vaccinate, not capable of putting a vaccine on the market,” Fabien Roussel, national secretary of the French Communist party told French radio.
Roussel added it was a scandal as Sanofi benefited from €100-150m in tax credits for its research from the state.
The Pasteur Institute began phase 1 testing of its vaccines on human volunteers in August 2020. It reported that “the immune responses induced were inferior to those observed in people cured of a natural infection as well as those observed with other vaccines against Covid-19.”
Prof Bruno Hoen, director of medical research at the Pasteur, told France Inter the findings were “bad news, of course”. The Pasteur said it would continue working on other coronavirus vaccine products that remained at a preliminary stage and have not been subjected to clinical trials on humans.
Others said the institute’s failure was more nuanced than the political outbursts suggested.
Jacques Haiech, emeritus professor of biotechnology at the University of Strasbourg, told France 24: “Vaccine research depends partly on luck. The option chosen by the Pasteur Insitute was just not the best.
“Beyond the question of austerity policies, which are very real and have an impact on the capacities of French research, there is above all the disappearance of the research centres of the French pharmaceutical industry, which has preferred to outsource for several years, because a vaccine is not a blockbuster product”.
In a report for the Terra Nova thinktank on the lessons to be learned from the race to develop Covid-19 vaccines, Anne Bucher, former director general for health at the European commission, concluded the European Union as a whole had shown its limits.
“The EU has not been able to put as much money on the table as the US,” she wrote.
The US government has invested more in vaccine research in past decades, experts say. French researchers lament that it is easier and quicker to raise funds from private investors in the US. A 2019 study found biotechs in Europe received five times less private funding than their American counterparts who rely heavily on investment from venture capital funds.