France cancelled purchases of 50 million swine flu vaccines after ordering far more than needed, but was confident on Tuesday that it would not have to compensate the big companies that provide them.
Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot said France was cancelling 50 million of the 94 million doses ordered from companies including Sanofi-Pasteur and GlaxoSmithKline, amid criticism of the government's vaccine planning.
AdvertisementFrance had expected to give most of its population of at least 64 million two doses each to protect against the A(H1N1) virus, but only five million have been vaccinated and European health authorities have said one dose is enough.
"Sanofi-Pasteur has told us that the order for nine million doses was simply cancelled without any indemnity payments," Bachelot said on Tuesday on radio station RTL.
France had ordered a total of 11 million doses from Sanofi. The health ministry said negotiations to cancel the outstanding two million were ongoing.
Following Bachelot's comments, shares in parent group Sanofi-Aventis fell 1.52 percent in morning trading on the Paris stock exchange.
Bachelot said the government would negotiate "very firmly" with the other companies and expected to avoid fines for the rest of the cancelled orders.
The British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline said on Monday it was willing to "re-discuss" its deal. The rest of the cancelled doses were ordered from Swiss drug maker Novartis.
"There was no cancellation clause, but we have seen a substantial change in the nature of the product," Bachelot said, since the doses "were sold to us as two-injection vaccines."
She valued France's orders at 712 million euros (1.07 billion dollars) and said the cancellations saved it more than half that. This was lower than an earlier government figure of 869 million euros due to a variation in VAT tax.
Opposition politicians are accusing the government of botching its vaccination strategy, driving Bachelot and other ministers onto the defensive.
"I made sure I got the widest possible scientific consensus" on the vaccination plan, Bachelot said. "I feel I was well advised on an extremely difficult, complex subject."
Qatar has bought 300,000 doses from France and Egypt is negotiating to buy two million, according to the health ministry. France is also in discussions with Mexico and Ukraine to sell some of its stock.
Socialist opposition spokesman Benoit Hamon said President Nicolas Sarkozy's government was trying to justify the fact that it "paid one billion euros to pharmaceutical companies who are the big winners in this entire affair."
Swine flu has killed at least 12,220 people worldwide with the biggest share of victims in the United States and Canada, though it is now declining in North America, according to the World Health Organisation.
A total of 198 people, including 24 children under the age of 15, have died from the virus in France and its overseas departments, according to health authorities.