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As France abandons its bid to create a Covid jab, a country laments its scientific decline 

France – birthplace of Louis Pasteur, who first discovered the principle of vaccination – last week abandoned its bid to create a coronavirus vaccine. 

The Pasteur Institute halted its project with US drugs company Merck after disappointing clinical test results. 

The announcement came as a blow to the pride of a country once hailed as a leader in scientific endeavour, with politicians seeing the trial’s failure as a symptom of a more serious disease. 

Early last year, French vaccine projects were considered among the most promising in the world, according to The Washington Post. But the Pasteur Institute is not the only French effort to have hit a road bump.

Another drug in development by French pharmaceutical company Sanofi and the UK’s GlaxoSmithKline has been significantly delayed after the company said it was less effective than anticipated. 

While other countries have faced similar setbacks and the European Union as a whole is struggling with vaccine shortages, the situation in France – which is also lagging behind in the numbers of people it has vaccinated – has prompted soul-searching in the country, which has long prided itself on its technological prowess. 

France, birthplace of the man who first discovered the principle of vaccination, last week abandoned its bid to create a coronavirus vaccine in a blow to the pride of a country once hailed as a leader in scientific endeavour, with politicians seeing the trial’s failure as a symptom of a more serious disease. Pictured: A laboratory technician works on the genome sequencing of the Covid-19 virus at the Pasteur Institute [File photo]

The Pasteur Institute (pictured) - named for Louis Pasteur who invented vaccines against rabies and anthrax - halted its project with US drugs company Merck after disappointing clinical test results [File photo]

The Pasteur Institute (pictured) – named for Louis Pasteur who invented vaccines against rabies and anthrax – halted its project with US drugs company Merck after disappointing clinical test results [File photo]

As well as Pasteur, who invented vaccines against rabies and anthrax and developed the process of pasteurisation, France birthed scientific greats such as Jérôme Jean Louis Marie Lejeune, who discovered the genetic cause for Down syndrome, and Georges Mathé, who conducted the first successful bone marrow transplant.

‘In a race against the clock, the Pasteur Institute throws in the towel on its main vaccine project, while Sanofi announces a delay until the end of the year, because of a lack of efficiency, after so many grand announcements. This scientific decline is a slap in the face,’ the centre-right Les Républicans parliamentary group wrote on Twitter. 

Fabien Roussel of France’s Communist Party told local radio that the country not being able to put a vaccine on the market was ‘a humiliation’. 

Meanwhile, left-wing politician Bastien Lachaud tweeted: ‘No vaccine in the country of Pasteur! What a symbol. This is where the impoverishing of public research, the primacy of the private sector and the triumph of management and profit are leading.’

Lachaud may be onto something. Austerity policies have decimated funding for research, while France’s academic pay structure has driven many science graduates abroad in search of better-paid positions. 

Centrist politician François Bayrou has criticised the ‘brain drain’, pointing to Stéphane Bancel, the French scientist at the head of the US company Moderna, whose vaccine has already been rolled out in the US and approved elsewhere. 

‘It’s a sign of the decline of the country and this decline is unacceptable,’ Bayrou told France Inter radio.

‘It is not acceptable that our best researchers, the most brilliant of our researchers, are sucked up by the American system’.

Bayrou went on to say that France had to invest in research if it wanted to remain competitive: ‘It’s about money, but it’s money well spent and a necessary investment’.   

Despite recent efforts under President Emmanuel Macron to boost spending on public research and private partnerships, France still lags behind other European countries.

Centrist politician François Bayrou has criticised France's 'brain drain', pointing to Stéphane Bancel (pictured) , the French scientist at the head of the US company Moderna, whose vaccine has already been rolled out in the US and approved elsewhere [File photo]

Centrist politician François Bayrou has criticised France’s ‘brain drain’, pointing to Stéphane Bancel (pictured) , the French scientist at the head of the US company Moderna, whose vaccine has already been rolled out in the US and approved elsewhere [File photo]

Germany dedicates more than twice as much annual public funding to health research and development as France, according to a report released last week by the French Council of Economic Analysis. 

The gap is not filled by private spending, which is less common in France than in the United States, while collaborations between universities and businesses like that which produced the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in the UK, are also less developed in France.

To add to the country’s woes, Sanofi recently announced a plan to cut 1,700 jobs – 1,000 in France of which 400 are in research and development. 

The government stepped in, saying it will prevent the layoffs but researchers have said this will do little to address the long-standing issues around academic funding and competitiveness. 

French biotech firm Valneva has started manufacturing its Covid vaccine at its Scottish facility with UK supplies expected to be available by the end of 2021 if successful. Pictured: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Valneva's facility in Livingston on Thursday [File photo]

French biotech firm Valneva has started manufacturing its Covid vaccine at its Scottish facility with UK supplies expected to be available by the end of 2021 if successful. Pictured: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Valneva’s facility in Livingston on Thursday [File photo]

The Washington Post reported that as early as 2005, a parliamentary report on biotechnology warned that France was ‘showing signs of faltering in the fields of public and private research, innovation, and the creation of companies, particularly with respect to the United States.’  

Just how France is planning to catch up remains unknown but with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and a presidential election looming, France’s support of scientific research and development is likely to remain in the spotlight. 

A potential silver lining could come from Valneva, which has started manufacturing its Covid vaccine at its Scottish facility with UK supplies expected to be available by the end of 2021 if successful.

The French biotech firm is still mid-way through clinical trials for its vaccine candidate but it has started producing the jab doses already at the site in Livingston, West Lothian.

Successful trials and the approval of the vaccine, of which Britain has already ordered 60million doses, could see the first batches delivered by the end of 2021. 


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