COVID-19 wards and COVID-19 suspect wards are also acute internal medicine wards, where there are a range of comorbidities to be managed. Photograph by Chris Allan
Press release |

MSF urges Sanofi to hand over abandoned mRNA vaccine candidate to WHO mRNA vaccine tech transfer hub in South Africa

5 min
Photograph by Chris Allan
COVID-19 wards and COVID-19 suspect wards are also acute internal medicine wards, where there are a range of comorbidities to be managed. Photograph by Chris Allan

Geneva, 30 September 2021 — Following news that French pharmaceutical corporation Sanofi will abandon its promising mRNA COVID-19 vaccine candidate, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) urged the corporation to transfer the technology and know-how for the vaccine to the World Health Organization (WHO)-led COVID-19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub in South Africa. Since its announcement in April 2021, the WHO mRNA hub has yet to receive any technology transfers and is now resorting to attempting to develop its own mRNA COVID-19 vaccine candidate from scratch – a lengthy, unnecessarily duplicative process. This is despite two approved mRNA vaccines and 13 candidates in advanced stages of development in existence which could be shared through the hub with producers in South Africa and other low- and middle-income countries. Any mRNA know-how shared with the WHO hub could save time and help the hub’s efforts towards developing a safe and effective mRNA vaccine for low- and middle-income countries

Sanofi announced that it will not pursue the development of its mRNA candidate vaccine only a few hours after publishing a press release announcing positive Phase 1/2 study interim results. Although more detailed results are still to come, Sanofi said “we are happy to see these positive results” and that these “confirm the potential” of the platform. The decision to abandon their COVID-19 mRNA candidate was justified by the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines market already being dominated by its competitors Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Sanofi has stated it will instead start developing a flu vaccine using this same mRNA platform. 

Sanofi received US$31 million in public funding for its COVID-19 vaccine development programme, and a further $4.9 billion in advance purchase agreements, which significantly de-risked the research and development for the corporation. 

Transferring Sanofi’s mRNA platform to the WHO hub could boost and accelerate the hub’s R&D efforts by giving access to the technical and clinical data generated by Sanofi thus far. Moreover, Sanofi as a global pharmaceutical actor should assist the hub in getting access to key starting materials for mRNA vaccine development and production. If successful, the hub would then assist multiple able manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries to start production of COVID-19 and other mRNA-based vaccines for the current and future pandemics. It would allow these countries and regions to no longer be entirely dependent on vaccines produced by other countries, and going forward, their populations could be protected from vaccine-preventable diseases at the same time as people living in high-income countries. 

Alain Alsalhani, Vaccines and Special Projects Pharmacist at MSF’s Access Campaign:

It’s unconscionable for Sanofi to let a promising vaccine candidate gather dust on its shelves simply because it won’t be lucrative for them.

Alain Alsalhani
Vaccines and Special Projects Pharmacist
MSF Access Campaign

“It’s unconscionable for Sanofi to let a promising vaccine candidate gather dust on its shelves simply because it won’t be lucrative for them, when they have an opportunity to put this research to lifesaving use by transferring their know-how to the WHO mRNA vaccine hub in South Africa. We urge Sanofi to transfer its technology to the WHO mRNA vaccine hub, to boost and accelerate its efforts towards developing an mRNA platform for vaccine production, not just for COVID but other infectious diseases as well, that can then be transferred to manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries. Less than one percent of mRNA vaccine deliveries has reached the poorest half of the world, while willing and able producers in low- and middle-income countries are desperately requesting to access the needed technology and know-how from corporations in high-income countries, to no avail.

“Considering the public funding that Sanofi received for its COVID-19 vaccine portfolio, the corporation has a responsibility to ensure that its mRNA vaccine eventually reaches people. MSF also calls on the French government, as well as other governments that funded Sanofi’s research, to put pressure on the corporation to take a rational decision of sharing this technology instead of abandoning it.”

MSF launched a campaign in September 2021 to put pressure on Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech to share their COVID-19 mRNA vaccine technology with the WHO hub, in order to tackle vaccine inequity by scaling up local production of mRNA vaccines, thereby reducing reliance on importations and donations. Several manufacturers on the African continent could produce an mRNA vaccine if full technology transfer and necessary support were provided. As mRNA technology can be adapted to produce vaccines and therapeutics for other infectious diseases, sustainable manufacturing in low- and middle-income countries using this technology can help prevent and control other diseases and contribute to countries on the African continent’s preparedness for future pandemics. For more information, see MSF’s new briefing document

On achieving global COVID-19 vaccine access:

In addition to demanding Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna share mRNA vaccine technology, MSF urges all governments to support the WHO hub with financial and political support. Additionally, MSF calls on governments with sufficient COVID-19 vaccine doses to immediately redistribute excess doses to the COVAX Facility and other regional mechanisms. MSF also urges governments to support the TRIPS Waiver proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive intellectual-property monopolies on all COVID-19 vaccines, tests, treatments and other health tools during the pandemic; and to use all legal and policy tools to facilitate uninterrupted production and diversity in supply of COVID-19 medical tools.