The Irish Times view on France’s vaccine troubles: in need of a shot in the arm

The failure of a home-grown Covid-19 vaccine project comes at a time of national self-doubt over French research capabilities

President Emmanuel Macron dismisses the idea that France is in a race to vaccinate. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/ AFP via Getty Images

President Emmanuel Macron dismisses the idea that France is in a race to vaccinate. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/ AFP via Getty Images

 

France’s mystifyingly slow vaccine rollout has been the subject of anguished debate since early January, when it became clear that the country’s cautious approach was leaving it in the slipstream of its neighbours, the United Kingdom in particular. Against that background, the news that the Institut Pasteur had abandoned its plan to develop a Covid-19 vaccine with the US pharma giant Merck has set off intense recriminations over the place of science in a country that takes pride in its history of scientific discovery. “What a symbol!” one politician said of the news from the Institut Pasteur – named, of course, after one of the fathers of vaccination.

The failure of the home-grown Covid-19 vaccine project comes at a time of national self-doubt over French research capabilities. Just last week the Council of Economic Analysis warned that the country faced a “significant delay” in catching up with pharmaceutical advances elsewhere. Germany spends twice as much each year on health research and development and the figure is increasing. In France, such funding fell by a third between 2011 and 2018. The flow of acclaimed scientists out of the country is a galling trend – one recent example was Emmanuelle Charpentier, winner of last year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry, who works in Berlin. Two of the companies that have produced safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines, the US firm Moderna and the Swedish-British outfit AstraZeneca, are run by French men.

Yet at least some of the national self-flagellation is misdirected. Vaccine development is a notoriously slow and difficult endeavour. Luck plays an important part.

A far more significant problem is France’s painfully slow vaccine rollout. As the higher inoculation rates of neighbouring EU states underlines, the issue so far has been less about supply than distribution. President Emmanuel Macron dismisses the idea that France is in a race to vaccinate. He is right that the programme must not only be fast but also safe, reassuring and sustainable. But it is also an inescapable fact that the faster people get their jabs, the fewer people will die.

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