Vaccine Nationalism: The Global Race For A COVID-19 Cure

There's a whole lot of money and prestige at stake as researchers across the globe scramble to develop a vaccine. Does this help or hurt the cause?

A volunteer from Wuhan during vaccine clinical trial
A volunteer from Wuhan during vaccine clinical trial
Philippe Escande


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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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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