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6th Jun 2020

Coronavirus

Vaccine selfishness goes against science, EU regulator warns

  • Guido Rasi, the EMA director, was professor of microbiology at the University of Rome (Photo: eu2018.at)

People most in need, not national hoarders, should get the first shots of any future coronavirus vaccine, the EU medicines regulator has said.

The first batches should go to "people most at risk of infection", such as medical staff on the front lines or transport sector workers, not just in all EU countries, but internationally, Guido Rasi, who heads the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in Amsterdam, said on Monday (18 May).

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That would create a "first ring of protection", which could later be fanned out to other groups as vaccine stocks grew, he said.

Scientists would have to model details of which "communities" to immunise first, but the ring method was "the rational approach", Rasi added.

The EMA authorises medicines for EU-wide distribution.

Rasi, who used to be professor of microbiology at the University of Rome, spoke to MEPs on the European Parliament's health committee in a videoconference.

But despite the EMA's good services, vaccine production and distribution will be decided at national and corporate level in Europe and beyond.

There is no coronavirus vaccine yet.

But "we [countries] shouldn't fight each other. We should make it [a vaccine] available community-wise, not country-wise ... I feel strongly about this," Rasi said.

The European Commission and EMA were working on "joint procurement" of vaccines, he noted.

The EMA was also working on "compassionate use" authorisation, a special fast-track procedure, of Remdesivir.

The drug, developed by Irish company Gilead Sciences Ireland, has helped patients suffering from the Sars and Ebola viruses in the past.

The emergency EMA approval could be given "in the coming days", Rasi said.

Research on monoclonal antibodies was promising, he added, but he "didn't see anything" other than Remdesivir on the approval horizon.

Monoclonal antibodies are human proteins used by the immune system, which can be engineered by bio-tech firms to attack specific targets, such as coronavirus.

A coronavirus vaccine could be a goldmine for companies such as British and French pharmaceutical giants GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, who recently joined forces to create one.

And the EMA was being bombarded with new pitches by drugs firms, the agency's director noted.

It was a good idea to develop multiple vaccines at the same time, in order to increase availability and treatment options, Rasi said.

Some vaccines worked better in some demographics than others, the EU expert noted, and science never created panaceas that immunised 100 percent of patients with zero adverse reactions, he said.

EMA staff were "passionate" about stopping the pandemic, Rasi said.

The EMA had paused some publications because of the disruption caused by moving from London to the Netherlands after Brexit, he noted.

But it would be publishing all its research on corona-vaccines, he promised.

Vaccine sceptics

The good news was, the longer the virus stayed, the better the vaccines would become, Rasi said.

The bad news was it might not go away, like hepatitis or HIV, he added.

More bad news was that vaccine scepticism, popular fears about vaccine side-effects and conspiracy theories, could have a "very important negative effect" on the fight to stop coronavirus, Rasi said.

People should still take normal flu vaccines, not least so that doctors knew whether patients had flu or coronavirus, he said.

And as governments and industries pondered the long-term effect of events, Rasi, the EMA head, advised EU capitals to further integrate health policy.

Vaccine-production should also be brought closer to home, he added, in terms of Europe's medical security.

"Making vaccines in a third country gives us some vulnerability. Some 10 years ago we enjoyed a local capacity in Europe, but now it has been almost dismantled," he said.

"That's an overall pharmaceutical policy that Europe will have to consider," Rasi said.

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