France-Amérique: A vaccine generally takes an average of 10 years to develop. Yet four months after the start of the pandemic, it appears a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 is already on track. How has this been accomplished so fast?
Adrien de Chaisemartin: Firstly, the leading research centers were quick to act and have access to almost unlimited resources. Secondly, we have been able to use research on other coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS. Finally, Covid-19 is not as complex as other viruses such as AIDS or malaria, for which we have spent more than 30 years looking for a vaccine. That being said, research is not the only priority. We also need the production capacity to be able to quickly put out billions of doses of the vaccine. However, producing a vaccine requires more complex biological processes than for medication. The quality standards are also extremely strict, of course. At Gavi, we are now working with several players to ensure that this production capacity is available as soon as possible.
Do you think it is likely that a vaccine will be available by the end of the year, as announced by certain politicians? And if not, when will one be ready?
There have been very bold announcements, particularly in the United States, about the availability of 300 million doses by October – a month before the presidential elections. These statements appear to be dictated by a political – and not a scientific – agenda. If everything goes to plan, the first doses will be ready in 12-18 months. However, the pressing question is when there will be sufficient volume to create real global immunity against the virus.
In a Financial Times interview in May, Paul Hudson, the CEO of French pharmaceutical company Sanofi, shocked the public by declaring that the laboratory would give the United States privileged access if a vaccine was found, due to America’s financial contributions to research. Who do you believe should receive the first vaccines?
Even if we are unable to completely distance ourselves from the logic of commercial profits, the vaccine must be a global public good. The first people to benefit should be healthcare professionals and vulnerable demographics across the world, regardless of their nationality, before the vaccine is made available to the rest of the population. We also have to amass stocks in order to vaccinate people in virus hotspots. Pharmaceutical producers will be key in ensuring that the vaccine is available to all without forgetting developing countries, which will have less financial power than wealthier nations. This is of course an equality issue, but it is also a way to avoid these countries becoming virus “reservoirs” for the rest of the world.
What would you say to conspiracy theorists who accuse the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation of population control through implanting computer chips or applying digital tattoos, or who claim the foundation patented a treatment several years ago before propagating the new coronavirus?
There is a wealth of imagination in these rumors, and they have unfortunately found a following on social media. It would be laughable if they did not have major consequences in the real world, such as cases of violence against healthcare professionals and the reappearance of epidemics due to insufficient vaccination rates.
Interview published in the July 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.