PARIS — If you liked seeing countries, regions and cities battle it out for those precious shipments of masks and gowns, then you're going to love how the race for a vaccine plays out. But beware, this isn't a game for small players. We're no longer talking about protections made of paper and plastic, but about molecules, production plants, and tens of billions of dollars.

Paul Hudson, CEO of the French pharmaceutical laboratory Sanofi, offered up a taste of what's to come when, in a May 13 interview with Bloomberg, he acknowledged that if the vaccine his company is developing thanks to U.S. public funds is approved and produced in its five American factories, the product will logically be distributed first in the United States, before any other countries in the world.

French authorities don't seem to understand that logic. "For us it would be unacceptable that there should be a privileged access for this or that country based on some monetary pretext," said Agnès Pannier-Runacher, a top Economy Ministry official.

Hudson, an Englishman, made his remarks intentionally to warn Europeans about the fact that they are falling behind on this matter. What he was referring to is a deal that Sanofi concluded in February with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a U.S. government agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that is tasked with procuring countermeasures to health threats.

France and Europe do not have such a public tool, and did not respond, at that time, to the coronavirus crisis in the same way. Sanofi was careful to point out, however, that it has since started "very constructive discussions with EU authorities as well as with the French and German governments, among others." Better late than never.

Researchers across the globe scramble to develop a vaccine — Photo: Cadu Rolim/Fotoarena/ZUMA

In the field of vaccines, quick and massive actions are the key. That means setting up production plants during the research phase, before even knowing if the product will be effective. Sometimes things don't pan out, as Sanofi recalls after investing 300 million euros renovating a factory in Neuville-sur-Saône, near Lyon, to produce a vaccine against dengue fever that did not deliver. In the case of the COVID-19, investments will be even more significant.

The French government's anger over Hudson's comments was understandable on a moral level, but also somewhat hypocritical. Monetary terms matter, and nationalism too. France proved that when it requisitioned its masks.

It's also true that the United States isn't the only country playing the national priority game. The UK reached a similar agreement with the multinational pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. China is also going on the offensive — and not just to protect its population. It also wants to prove its technological superiority to the world.

Of the approximately 100 vaccines currently in development across the world, a dozen, including four Chinese vaccines, are being clinically tested.

The stakes are geopolitical, in other words, as China and the United States continue ratcheting up their cold war. In the meantime, Europe is urging an approach that fewer and fewer seem to support: multilateralism.

In the case of vaccines, there is one compelling argument in favor of the European position. And it has both a moral and economic component: As long as all the countries around the world, and especially the poorest, are not immunized, the virus will continue to spread.

Collective interest vs personal interest. The European Commission has supervised a conference of contributors who raised $7.4 billion to design and deliver vaccines, particularly in poor countries. A glimmer of hope for the first victims of the new vaccination nationalism.

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