More than 140 world leaders and experts have called for future Covid-19 vaccines to be made available to everyone free of charge, amid growing tensions between drug companies and governments and a boycott of vaccine summits by the US.
Vaccines and treatments for the virus should not be patented, say the signatories to an open letter published in the run-up to next week’s meeting of the World Health Assembly, the policy-setting body of the UN’s World Health Organization. Instead, scientific breakthroughs must be shared across borders, they urge.
The signatories include South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa; Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan; and the former UK prime minister Gordon Brown.
“Governments and international partners must unite around a global guarantee which ensures that, when a safe and effective vaccine is developed, it is produced rapidly at scale and made available for all people, in all countries, free of charge,” the letter says, adding that poorer countries should not be left at the back of the vaccine queue.
The plea came as a French pharmaceutical company stirred outrage by saying any vaccine it discovered would be reserved for Americans in the first instance.
Paul Hudson, the British chief executive officer of Sanofi, said any vaccine would go to the US first since it had done the most to fund the company’s research. “The US government has the right to the largest pre-order because it’s invested in taking the risk,” Hudson told Bloomberg.
The European commission and health experts responded furiously, pointing out that Paris-based Sanofi has received tens of millions of euros in the form of research credits from the French state in recent years.
The French government described Hudson’s remarks as unacceptable, while the German press pasted the firm as a soulless and disloyal multinational willing to blackmail governments to extract lucrative subsidies.
Last week Britain, China, Canada, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and numerous African countries took part in a global Covid-19 summit. The virtual meeting raised more than $8bn for a potential vaccine. The Trump administration refused to send a representative, however, and appears determined to pursue its own unilateral vaccine path.
In a report published on Thursday, Brown pointed out that a second or third wave of Covid-19 infection could come from poor countries with undeveloped health systems. The solution to the problem was global, he said, adding that the pandemic would end only when the virus was “eradicated in every continent”.
As many as 100 forms of vaccine are being tested. The WHO sees seven or so as frontrunners. On Wednesday its emergencies chief, Michael Ryan, said the coronavirus “may never go away” and could become a regular endemic disease like the flu.
The WHO’s director for Europe, Hans Kluge, said vigilance was needed to keep the virus at bay, as well as cooperation between people and politicians. He noted that new virus clusters had emerged in places where Covid-19 had apparently vanished, such as Wuhan in China, and South Korea.
On Thursday France’s prime minister, Édouard Philippe, said the French could take holidays this summer but only in France and French overseas territories. This would be allowed if there were no second wave of coronavirus, he said
Philippe promised a decision by 25 May as to whether French restaurants, bars and cafés could open on 2 June. The aim would be for premises to reopen in areas designated “green”, where the virus is not circulating and hospital intensive care units are not “saturated” with Covid-19 patients. He gave no date for those in “red” areas.
The government announced a generous financial rescue plan for France’s tourism industry, which used to welcome 90 million tourists a year. Philippe said tourism was suffering its “greatest challenge in modern history”.
Since Monday, French shops have reopened and some children are back at school. The relaxation of lockdown has caused a few blips, with police breaking up crowds in popular areas. An alcohol ban has been imposed in public places after some Parisians over-celebrated their freedom. On Wednesday another rule was relaxed: more than 10 people can now gather in a private home.
In other developments:
Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, lifted a state of emergency in large parts of the country, including a majority of prefectures. He said it would remain in place in Tokyo and in the second-largest urban area, Osaka, until the virus was contained.
Qatar introduced a law threatening citizens and residents with three years in jail or a £45,000 fine if they leave home without a face mask. The only exception is for people driving alone. The measure follows a surge in infections among migrant workers.
The number of lives lost worldwide in the coronavirus pandemic is nearing 300,000, according to Johns Hopkins University figures, with 297,197 deaths reported. There have been 4,347,015 confirmed infections.
Afghanistan recorded its biggest one-day rise in coronavirus cases. The health ministry in Kabul warned of a second phase of transmission as war rages across the country.
The US embassy in Tanzania said hospitals there were being overwhelmed by an “exponential growth” in Covid-19 cases. In a strikingly critical statement, the embassy warned that the risk of contracting the virus was “extremely high” in the capital, Dar es Salaam, and beyond.
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