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Covid-19: Vaccine

Volume 802: debated on Thursday 19 March 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that UK production facilities are able to develop and produce sufficient quantities of any vaccine for COVID-19.

My Lords, vaccine development is moving very rapidly but is still at a very early stage. The Government are working closely with industry to assess UK manufacturing capability for a range of potential new vaccines. The type of capacity and specific route needed to take this further will be determined by the technology used to produce the vaccines and the types of vaccines produced.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. The Question is about not just the production of vaccines but the production facilities to mass-produce them. Understandably, the priority now must be supporting those infected and the front-line staff with the production of ventilators. However, we should be planning for what comes next, as the Minister said, and the development of vaccines is part of that. What discussions have been had, or decisions made, between the Government and UKRI about scaling up? When we get the vaccine, that will be fine, but what about the ability to scale it up? We will need to build the factory now; normally that comes after. Can we explore a little further whether the work on scaling up is happening, as well as the development of the vaccine?

The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, is entirely right to focus on the importance of vaccines. The Government are extremely concerned that the entire public have a clear line to having confidence that they can rid themselves of the threat of the virus so that we can all get back to work and normal life. That will not be possible until we have a vaccine. If I may digress for a moment, one consideration is that, for a vaccine to work, it will have to be taken by billions; for that, it must be as safe as houses. I contrast that with the vaccine for Ebola, where the death rate was at nearly 80% and a just-about-good-enough approach could be taken. However, the coronavirus has a relatively low mortality rate and the introduction of an added risk factor into the population is something we can avoid. For those reasons, the development of a vaccine is considered to be at least a year or 18 months off. However, the noble Lord is entirely right that planning for the production of the vaccine, when it is fully developed, is front of mind for the Government.

My Lords, ever since John Snow discovered the link between the famous London water pump and the cholera outbreak in 1854, UK scientists and innovators have led global efforts to tackle infectious diseases. We should be very proud of that. However, many UK biotechs and healthtechs which are leading the race to fight Covid-19 are loss-leading and will struggle to raise risk capital in the current climate to maintain operations. One very simple intervention the Treasury could make would be to pay R&D tax credits in advance. This would be matched very well to each individual company and could be based simply on their most recent claims. Will the Minister look into this as a matter of urgency?

My noble friend has an important and exciting idea, and I am grateful to her for communicating it to me in advance of today’s Question. I have already taken the idea to Treasury colleagues. I have not had a formal response, but the idea supports a pressing and important need in the essential life sciences sector and seems to have strong merit. I hope it will go far.

My Lords, the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, was very clear: it is not about the production of a vaccine but the facilities to manufacture that vaccine at scale. At the moment, the Government have made £46 million available for research into the vaccine. What money and planning are going into the facilities so that, once a vaccine has been made, it can be produced at scale in the UK?

The focus on the actual production of the vaccine is a matter of sequencing. We are moving incredibly quickly in all areas, but the focus at the moment, I think understandably, is on trying to get a product developed. In that respect, I bear testimony to the Oxford Vaccine Group and Jenner Institute at Oxford University, which have been shortlisted for the CEPI group of seven for potential vaccine development. This is an incredibly important development and shows the strength of Britain’s contribution to the development of vaccines.