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Pasteur and Sanofi, symbols of the decline in French research?

The announcement by the Institut Pasteur, Monday, of the abandonment of its main vaccine project against Covid-19, which adds to the delay taken by the vaccine developed by Sanofi, symbolizes for many the decline of French research . An observation that deserves to be qualified.

For vaccines à la française, we will have to wait. After the delay announced in early December by Sanofi, the Institut Pasteur formalized, Monday, January 25, the abandonment of research on its main vaccine project against Covid-19, which it was developing in partnership with the American Merck.

This announcement provoked in the political class, on the right and on the left, a wave of indignant comments on social networks, which saw it as proof of the decline of French research on the world stage.

“In the race against time, the Pasteur Institute throws in the towel on its main vaccine project, while Sanofi announces an exit delayed at the end of the year, for lack of efficiency, after announcements with great fanfare. This scientific downgrading is a snub, “tweeted the Les Républicains group of the National Assembly.

“No vaccine in the land of Pasteur! What a symbol! This is where the tramping of public research, the primacy of the private sector, the triumph of management and profit lead. Macron’s recipes are leading to decline. It is time to release the rulers. which led us there “, lamented for his part the deputy La France rebellious Bastien Lachaud.

The Pasteur Institute was working on a vaccine using as a base that against measles. To design and distribute it, the French research institute had joined forces with the MSD pharmaceutical laboratory – the name of the American group Merck outside the United States and Canada. MSD had bought last year the Austrian biotechnology company Themis, with which Pasteur has been working for several years on the development of various vaccines, including that against Covid-19. But Monday, the Pasteur Institute announced the interruption of work on this vaccine project, for lack of convincing results during the first clinical trials.

“In reality, it is rather Themis and Merck who decide to give up and this failure has little to do with the means of the Pasteur Institute”, nuance Jacques Haiech, professor emeritus of biotechnology at the University of Strasbourg, contacted by France 24. “There is an element of chance in vaccine research. The option chosen by the Institut Pasteur was simply not the best.”

“The vaccine is not a blockbuster product”

The Institut Pasteur also specified in its press release that it was continuing its work on its two other vaccine projects against Covid-19, at a preliminary stage, however. “The first, which can be administered by the nasal route, is developed with the biotechnology company TheraVectys, a product of the Institut Pasteur and specializing in the development of vaccines. The second is a DNA vaccine candidate,” it says.

While it is difficult to deny that this type of research is based on winning or losing bets, this abandonment is nonetheless bad news for the French pharmaceutical industry. Especially since it adds to the announcement of Sanofi which warned at the beginning of December that its vaccine developed with the British GSK had been delayed and would not be ready until the end of 2021, again due to less good results than discount. This latest vaccine project is based on a technology based on recombinant protein, and not on messenger RNA, the solution used by those already marketed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

“Beyond the austerity policies, which are very real and which have an impact on the capacities of French research, there is especially the disappearance of the research centers of the French pharmaceutical industry, which for several years prefers to outsource , considers Jacques Haiech. For her, the vaccine is not a blockbuster product. “

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The example of Sanofi is quite telling. The French laboratory confirmed on January 18 the elimination of 1,700 jobs in Europe, including several hundred research & development (R&D) positions, particularly in France. The group had indicated at the end of 2019 that it wanted to rationalize its spending, with a target of two billion euros in savings by 2022, in particular by stopping research in diabetes, one of its traditional core businesses, as well as in the cardiovascular. At the same time, Sanofi was investing in several biotechnology start-ups, while distributing in April 2020 to its shareholders nearly 4 billion euros in dividends.

“This raises the question of the efforts made by manufacturers like Sanofi on research, even though this has normally been subsidized by the State via the research tax credit (CIR)”, underlines Olivier Berné, astrophysicist at the CNRS contacted by France 24 and member of the RogueESR collective, which fights “for a fair and ambitious project in higher education and research in France”.

“What about the quality of the scientific research work that is done in these companies? How is it that Sanofi is firing researchers despite the CIR and at a time when progress is needed?” Asks the researcher, for whom “the gifts given to companies drain the resources of public bodies”.

Washington puts $ 10 billion on the table

“We lost the race for the vaccine against the Covid”, after pocketing “1.5 billion euros in various tax credits for ten years”, agrees the CGT. According to the union, Sanofi had more than 6,300 researchers in 2008. They will be less than 3,500 after the future restructuring.

Despite everything, is it fair to speak of the failure of French research when the European Union (EU) as a whole has shown its limits? “The EU has not been able to put as much money on the table as the United States: when Washington added $ 10 billion to health crisis funding with Operation Warp Speed ​​as early as May 2020, Brussels, for its part, had an envelope slightly greater than $ 3 billion, “writes Anne Bucher, former Director-General for Health at the European Commission, in a note for the Terra Nova think tank, published on January 22, on lessons from the Covid-19 vaccine race.

>> To read: “Covid-19: why Germany is betting 400 million euros on synthetic antibodies”

Anne Bucher cites in particular the Barda (Bio-medical Advanced Research and Development Authority), established in 2006 in the United States, which aims in particular to maintain a national production capacity for vaccines and to attract researchers: “Research grants and to the investment have in fact as a counterpart the establishment of production units on national soil. ” An industrial health policy that contrasts with that of the EU. The European Commission has only just adopted, in November 2020, a project for a European Health Union.

In addition, American biotechnology start-ups rely heavily on money from venture capital funds, which are much more developed in the United States: a study by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company thus noted in 2019 that biotechs in Europe received five times less private funding than their American counterparts.

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