After the failures of the coronavirus vaccine, France deplores the state of its biomedical R&D | Science
On January 25, as the third wave of the French pandemic was gaining momentum, Christophe d’Enfert, scientific director of the Institut Pasteur, appeared on national television with a sinister duty: to explain how the venerable institute, named after vaccine pioneer Louis Pasteur, had given up on its most advanced COVID-19 vaccine candidate. At around the same time, French drug giant Sanofi said its own suitors were being delayed and that it would cut hundreds of jobs in France. Today, France remains the only nation on the UN Security Council without a viable vaccine. For d’Enfert, it “calls into question our ability not only to carry out fundamental research of a very high level, but also to transform it into innovation”.
These high profile failures have highlighted the problems of biomedicine in France. Even if no failure could have been predicted, the pattern “is not just bad luck,” explains Audrey Vézian, sociologist of biomedicine at CNRS, the French national research center, in Lyon. “It shows that something is wrong with our innovation process.” Some experts cite a cut in funding for basic research and a scarcity of venture capital. Vézian also blames a proliferation of bureaucratic organizations that waste resources and add confusion.
Margaret Kyle, an economist at the Mines ParisTech doctoral school who co-authored a January study by the Economic Analysis Council (CAE), a government advisory body, believes France should be in a good position to do biomedical research – and market it. Its education system produces talented scientists and it has a national health care system, which provides data that can be deployed in medical research. But recent analyzes paint a picture of the long-term erosion of public biomedical investment. The CAE study found that public spending on biology and health research has declined significantly since 2011, even though it has increased in Germany and the UK (see graph below).
Bruno Canard, a structural biologist who studies coronaviruses at the CNRS in Marseille, felt this decline with his own eyes. For example, he says, France only has three of the cryo-electron (cryo-EM) microscopes that can reveal molecular structures like that of the coronavirus at near atomic resolution; Germany and the UK each have about two dozen. And the French national research funding agency, created in 2005 to provide competitive funding per project, has seen its budgets drop sharply. The money for emergency COVID-19 research began to flow, which Duck said reduced his lab’s budget to 2003 levels. But by the time funds for the pandemic were available, said -it, “Chinese teams, among others, had already published the first articles on cryo-EM in Science, Cell, and Nature. “
Biotech startups, essential to pharmaceutical innovation, are also less well funded in France than among its European peers. Funding from France’s Public Investment Bank (BPI) and tax breaks can be generous in the early stages of business development, but private funding is too scarce to allow enough businesses to grow significantly. at later stages. In 2020, French health technology startups each raised only € 8 million in venture capital on average, compared to € 12 million in the UK and € 25 million in Germany, according to the reports. data compiled by the France Biotech professional group.
In the first 5 years following the co-founding of biotechnologist Odile Duvaux in 2014, a startup called Xenothera, she raised 6 million euros to develop the company’s immunotherapies. Things got better during the pandemic, when BPI gave Xenothera € 5.3million to ramp up the production of an intravenous COVID-19 antibody treatment and test it in trials; the company has since raised an additional 10.3 million euros and the treatment is being tested in 35 hospitals in France, as well as in five other countries.
But Duvaux says those amounts are overshadowed by what U.S. companies are often able to raise. “We’re chasing pennies and dimes,” she says. “We need pre-orders. This is what the US government is doing; this is what the UK government is doing [French vaccine company] Valneva: they buy millions of doses before knowing if the products work ”and assume the risk. In contrast, French executives tend to distrust or ignore biotech companies, preferring well-established academic centers and pharmaceutical companies instead, Duvaux says. But neither is as nimble as a startup, she says: “A pedal boat or an oil tanker can’t go fast.”
French organizations, public and private, lack “mixed expertise”: people with experience in both health and biotechnology as well as finance, law and business, according to a 2017 report from Boston Consulting Group, commissioned by France Biotech. The report blames France’s predilection for elite schools that train generalists rather than specialists. France Biotech President Franck Mouthon said administrative burdens and security procedures, added after health scandals, are also weighing down the country’s innovation system. “There is money circulating to finance innovation in France, but we need reforms,” he said. For example, members of ethics committees that review clinical trial applications are drawn to limit conflicts of interest, but it also means they often lack the necessary expertise, he says. .
Changes are underway. The current administration is committed to reversing what it calls “decades of underinvestment” with a ten-year plan and a reform enacted in December 2020. The plan aims to increase R&D spending by 2.2% to 3% of gross domestic product, in line with that of Germany, increase public spending from 15 to 20 billion euros by 2030. It also intends to make research careers more attractive by increasing meager salaries and by creating tenure track junior jobs, a novelty in France. (Some researchers have protested the law, arguing that the budget increases are not enough and that junior jobs are a demotion from lifetime employment in the state.)
Change is also happening in the startup world. Mouthon says the pandemic has made communication with health authorities easier, helping startups clarify regulatory requirements early on. And last summer, the government encouraged a group of insurance companies and semi-public institutions to pledge € 6 billion in technological investments in France through 33 funds; nine of these funds are dedicated to health.
Many scientists are cautiously hoping that the awakening of COVID-19 will bring lasting improvements. At Pasteur, researchers are continuing their efforts with two more candidate vaccines and other research related to COVID-19, in part through public donations. D’Enfert says the institute is considering starting a production unit, like the one at the University of Oxford, to manufacture preclinical vaccine batches in-house, or adding messenger RNA – the technique behind them. Moderna and Pfizer vaccines – in the institute’s research portfolio.
D’Enfert hopes the government will increase funding for research and give more “power” and “recognition” to basic science. “It shouldn’t just be about snapping your fingers and putting gas in the engine,” he says. “It must be sustainable over the long term.”