June 16, 2020 / 11:21 AM / a month ago

France gives its drugs industry a shot in the arm to tackle pandemic

MARCY-L’ETOILE, France (Reuters) - France’s president and top drugmaker announced plans on Tuesday to bolster domestic production of medicines as countries scramble to strengthen their healthcare industries to counter the coronavirus pandemic.

Drugmaker Sanofi, which is working on two potential coronavirus vaccines, said it would invest 610 million euros ($679 million) at two French sites to turn them into a hub dedicated to research, development and production of vaccines.

Speaking at the Marcy-L’Etoile facility, President Emmanuel Macron also pledged 200 million euros to help domestic research and manufacturing of medicines and said his government would announce plans on Thursday to bring back some drug production facilities to France.

“Everybody saw that during this crisis some commonly used drugs were no longer produced in France and Europe. So we must no longer just ask questions, but draw the conclusions,” Macron said at the Sanofi site near Lyon, central France.

There are currently no approved treatments or vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus which has killed more than 431,000 globally. Drugmakers across the world are rushing to address that, while governments in turn are jostling to try to ensure they will be in line for supplies.

The issue has become particularly sensitive in France after Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson signalled in May that Europe was being too slow in supporting work on a vaccine and hinted U.S. patients might get any vaccine it develops first, given Washington had provided more funding.

Although Sanofi quickly back-pedalled, promising a vaccine would be made available worldwide simultaneously, the comments raised alarm over Europe’s lack of coordination.

In the latest sign European countries are now trying to catch up, a group formed by France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands struck a deal on Saturday to secure 400 million doses of AstraZeneca’s potential vaccine. [nL8N2DQ0GG]

The European Commission, meanwhile, received a mandate from EU governments on Friday to negotiate advance purchases of up to six vaccines using proceeds of an emergency fund of 2.4 billion euros. [nL8N2DP3D1]

Macron cited paracetamol as one of the drugs he wanted to see fully produced in France again. The last European plant making the active ingredient for the common painkiller was shut in 2008, but governments have become increasingly worried about relying on imports after India, one of the biggest producers of drug ingredients, banned exports at the start of the pandemic.

Bringing production home may be a complicated process, industry players have warned, reversing a years-long strategy by drugmakers sources abroad to free up capital and escape countries like France where costs are high and labour laws tough.

Studies say up to 80% of the active pharmaceutical ingredients used by European drugmakers are produced outside of the region, mostly in India and China.

Macron also said he hoped to strike a deal with Sanofi in the coming days to reserve supplies of its potential COVID-19 vaccines, without giving details.

Final stage clinical trials of Sanofi’s vaccines - one in partnership with Britain’s GlaxoSmithKline, the other with U.S. company Translate Bio - are expected to start by the end of this year or the beginning of 2021.

Macron is due to hold a virtual meeting with heads of several drugmakers later on Tuesday. Hudson and officials from Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna among others are expected to take part.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech after a visit at the French drugmaker's vaccine unit Sanofi Pasteur plant in Marcy-l'Etoile, near Lyon, France, June 16, 2020. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool

As part of its investment plan, Sanofi will spend 490 million euros over five years to build a new facility at Neuville-sur-Saone to produce three to four vaccines at once, rather than just one at the moment. Some 200 new jobs are expected, the company said.

Sanofi will also commit 120 million euros to a new research centre at Marcy-l’Etoile to develop vaccines for emerging diseases.

($1 = 0.8837 euros)

Reporting by Gonzalo Fuentes, Michel Rose and Sudip Kar-Gupta, Writing by Matthias Blamont; Editing by Mark Potter

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