Serge Weinberg issues sharp reversal as board, French government react to CEO Paul Hudson’s vaccine remarks

Sanofi chair Serge Weinberg on Thursday walked back entirely his CEO Paul Hudson’s remarks that the US would have “the right to the largest pre-order” of the French drugmaker’s Covid-19 vaccine, should it be complete.

“There will be no particular advance given to any country,” Weinberg told France 2 television, according to Reuters. “The comments of our CEO have been altered. We consider vaccines as a common good.”

Weinberg’s comments joined a chorus among the board and the French government over the comments made Wednesday by Hudson, who insists he was misunderstood and had been calling only for Europe to take stronger action to support the development of a vaccine.

Remarking that a vaccine should be for the “public good” and that Hudson’s comments “affected” French President Emmanuel Macron, a government official told Bloomberg Hudson and other Sanofi leadership were called to the presidential residence at the Élyseé Palace for a meeting. Earlier Thursday morning, when news of  Macron’s dissatisfaction first surfaced, Hudson said in an interview for the Financial Times‘ Global Boardroom that it was “news to him” that the president wanted a meeting.

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe also spoke out, saying on Twitter that “a vaccine against Covid-19 should be a public good for the world.”

After the company issued an initial statement walking back Hudson’s comments on Wednesday — saying that US production will be mainly for the US and ex-US production for Europe and the globe — Weinberg and other members of Sanofi’s board spoke out out in greater force on Thursday.

Olivier Bogillot, chairman of Sanofi’s French unit, appeared on BFM Television and said there was no question about what would happen.

“Obviously, if Sanofi makes a breakthrough on a vaccine for Covid-19 and it is effective, it will be made available to all,” he said.

Hudson, appearing for a scheduled interview at the FT virtual conference, tried to clarify his remarks. The still relatively new CEO had told Bloomberg that the US would get the largest pre-order because the US bio-defense agency BARDA had financed their Covid-19 effort, backing it with a $30 million grant this year. He urged Europe to make a similar effort so countries on the continent “don’t get left behind.”

“What I’m trying to say everywhere I go is that the US has BARDA, which is like a biological research group that gets ahead of these things earlier to get people ready and to try to make sure the necessary capacity is built and the risks are shared,” he said.  “My comments are really around what do we need to do to make sure we’re in a similar position in Europe. It was never a choice. We need to get vaccines to everybody.”

Experts warn, though, that when Covid-19 vaccines do arrive, they will come in batches, forcing potentially difficult decisions about who gets the first doses. AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said last month that the UK would get early access to the vaccine they are producing with Oxford University.

Ousted BARDA chief Rick Bright said at a whistleblower hearing Thursday that the US has a “placeholder” to order doses from some of the vaccine companies it funded. The agency has put around $1 billion to back J&J and Moderna’s efforts. In addition to the $30 million this spring, the agency has given Sanofi and its recombinant vaccine subsidiary Protein Sciences hundreds of millions in grants over the last 15 years.

“The United States has a placeholder with some of those companies to be able to place orders for those vaccines when they are available,” Bright said.  “And we did everything possible to ensure that those investments were in companies that would build capacity in the United States to manufacture those vaccines. We had to get in line first.”

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