The European Commission (EC), the European Union’s executive body, intends to unveil today its own plans for the development of a coronavirus vaccine.
Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is scheduled to pledge up to €2.7 billion (S$4.2 billion) of emergency funding towards a series of advance pur-chase agreements with pharmaceutical companies researching potential vaccines.
The funds would target drugs entering clinical trials this year, to ensure that the EU’s 500 million citizens would benefit from their mass production by next year.
But it is not clear how this Europe-wide effort fits with similar vaccine-support plans launched by individual European states.
The move also exposes the EU to charges of hypocrisy, since it had criticised previous plans by the United States to hoard vaccines for Americans, only to end up doing precisely the same thing now.
EU health ministers last week backed a plan to offer cash to European pharmaceutical companies researching potential vaccines.
“At times when the world is taking steps to get access to a future vaccine, the EU must show a united front in these global efforts,” said Mrs Stella Kyriakides, the EU commissioner responsible for health, at the end of a ministerial teleconference last Friday.
Pharmaceutical companies will learn later today how this money will be distributed, but the broad outline of what the EU proposes to do is already known.
The plan would offer financial guarantees to pharmaceutical companies which would otherwise face big losses if their vaccines are not successful.
The EU executive plans to pay for up to six potential vaccines in deals which will tie pharmaceutical producers to providing a set number of doses when and if these become available.
In effect, the EU accepts that some of its money would go to waste, in return for getting an assurance that European citizens will be at the front of the queue once an effective vaccine is developed by any of the companies it is backing.
All vaccines now in clinical trials – and therefore appearing to be more promising – are, in principle, eligible for these funding deals.
Tellingly, however, European funding will not be extended to vaccine research and development produced exclusively in the US.
The EC is right to point out that its refusal to back US vaccine research is because of Washington’s decision that it will not allow sales abroad of US-made vaccines before all domestic needs are met.
The commission also insists that far from seeking exclusivity, the EU will continue “playing its part in ensuring global access to the vaccine, irrespective of wealth”.
Nevertheless, the fact is that Europe is now prioritising vaccine access for its own citizens with the same methods it criticised the Americans of applying.
Europe’s funding model is also like that of the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which has bankrolled the development and manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccines.
And although there is a European pledge to share a future vaccine with other nations, there is no indication of how this will be done, or how a potential vaccine will be priced to provide access for poorer countries.
Nor is it very clear how Britain, which is home to key drug makers AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, will be able to tap the funding.
In theory, the British, who left the EU at the start of this year, can continue collaborating under transition arrangements.
Yet these arrangements expire at the end of this year, and the EU vaccine support programme is scheduled to last for longer.
But the biggest question is how the EU scheme would work in parallel with similar national initiatives set up by Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Britain, all of which are designed to provide preferential access to vaccines.
The EC denies that there is any contradiction. Still, the various governments continue to push their own national pharmaceutical champions, on the understanding that individual European nations may be first to benefit.
France’s Sanofi, the world’s third-largest vaccine maker, was recently chastised by President Emmanuel Macron after it suggested that access to American funds could mean that the US would be first in line for any of its successful vaccines.
And just this week, the German government announced that it will be taking a 23 per cent stake in CureVac, a local manufacturer, to ensure that its vaccine research programme remains in German hands.
A number of “vaccine races” are taking place at the same time – between Europe and other continents, and between individual European nations.