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EU Coronavirus Vaccine Programme

Volume 804: debated on Monday 13 July 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the United Kingdom will participate in the European Union coronavirus vaccine programme.

My Lords, we have had constructive discussions with the EU on this scheme. We have decided not to join since we would not have a say in running it and would not be able to pursue our own negotiations. We will instead continue our own ambitious programme to secure a successful vaccine for the UK public as soon as possible and build collaboration with the EU outside of this framework.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. I think the noble Lord would not be surprised if some anxiety was not expressed about this issue, for two reasons. First, the Government have form in this pandemic by refusing to take part in the European procurement programme to buy PPE, for example, for which we have paid a price. Secondly, the Health Secretary has said that the Government rejected the offer to join the EU scheme because they did not want to disrupt the UK vaccines programme, which one understands, and we have secured two deals with

“the two most developed candidates in the world”.

Does the Minister share my concern that the Government may be putting all our vaccine procurement eggs into two baskets? If these two candidates are unsuccessful, what options will be available to the UK, given the aggressive procurement efforts of the United States, China and other countries? What does the Minister think the UK’s role should be in what is turning into a vaccine nationalism—a sort of arms race—with significant worldwide political, economic and public health implications?

I understand the noble Baroness’s reservations and she makes some good points, but the important point about this scheme is that we would not have been able to take part in the governance of it or as part of the negotiation team. We would have had no say in which vaccines to procure and at what price, in what quantity and for what delivery schedule. We could therefore not have been confident that the scheme would deliver for UK needs. Crucially, we would not have been able to negotiate with a company that the EU is negotiating with in parallel. For all these reasons, we took the decision not to participate. We do not rule out participating in future procurement programmes, and the noble Baroness makes a good point about the nationalism, as it were, of some countries. We will continue to pursue international collaboration, and we have a number of schemes in which we will continue to take part.

My Lords, I have read what the Government have written to the European Commission saying that involvement with the EU Covid-19 vaccine programme means we would be unable to pursue parallel negotiations with other potential vaccine suppliers. That has come as an astonishing surprise to most of the biopharma industry and it is plainly away from the truth. It is very much like the mistakes that have been made on testing and tracing, and it places the United Kingdom way behind the science curve. Would the Minister agree that, the more vaccines that are created and tested from reliable research, including the EU programme, the more likely it is that a successful research outcome will take place, the more trustworthy the research protocols will be and the more exhaustive the vaccine programme will be in getting a vaccine to people as fast as possible? Would he also agree that ideology must never, in any circumstances, trump the science?

I am afraid the noble Lord is wrong on his first point, but on his supplementary points I can agree with him. I can confirm that we are supporting a number of different research platforms and vaccine technologies, both through our discussions with companies and through our global efforts, alongside helping to fund research on a vaccine at Oxford University with the help of AstraZeneca. We have committed £250 million of UK aid to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, an organisation that is working on a global scale to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.

In April, the World Health Organization said that countries must work together to develop a number of Covid-19 vaccines that have concluded successful clinical trials and demonstrate that they can manufacture many millions of doses faster than ever achieved before—none of which is a given. The UK was a signatory to the following World Health Organization declaration:

“We will continue efforts to strengthen the unprecedented worldwide collaboration, cooperation … and we will work tenaciously to increase the likelihood that one or more safe … vaccines will soon be made available to all.”

On this basis, why are the UK Government still refusing to collaborate with the EU vaccine scheme?

I did not catch all of that question; the audio was a bit poor. If the noble Baroness is saying that we should continue to co-operate on an international level, I would completely agree with her. I set out earlier the reasons why we did not think it was right to participate in this particular EU initiative, but we do not rule out participating in other EU procurement initiatives and we are in discussions on how we might do that.

My Lords, has my noble friend seen the comments of Oxford’s Regius Professor John Bell, who said that the Government’s decision was “sensible”, that the UK has

“a very, very coherent and good vaccine plan”

and that the UK is

“way ahead of Europe in the way we think about vaccines”?

Does he agree that if there is a loser from the UK opting out of the EU plan, it is the EU and not the UK?

I had not seen the comments that my noble friend refers to, but I agree with them. We do have a number of promising vaccine production methods going on. However, if there are future international collaborations, either with the EU or with other international partners, then we rule nothing out because we need to work together to find an appropriate vaccine.

My Lords, since Brexit, which I supported, the United Kingdom has withdrawn from the Galileo satellite project, the Erasmus university programme and now the European vaccine programme. Can the Minister please confirm that, in the context of co-operation, we look forward to much co-operation with our European neighbours?

Yes, I agree with the noble Lord. Although we have decided not to participate in this particular initiative, we are committed to strengthening our collaboration with the EU and international partners on vaccines outside this framework. I assure the noble Lord that we will indeed continue to work with our European partners in other areas of mutual interest.

My Lords, notwithstanding any agreements we could have made with the European Union on vaccine development, what happens if the Chinese get there first with their Sinovac Biotech product or even another Chinese product? Can we have an absolute assurance that we will reject any pressure, trade threat or anything whatsoever from the Trump Administration or any other American Administration to boycott a Chinese product?

The noble Lord asks a number of hypothetical questions. All I can say is that we will continue to collaborate internationally both in the EU and across the world on vaccine development. It is something that we all have a stake in, and we all need to work together to achieve it.

My Lords, Wellcome’s head of global policy has described the EU policy as “morally right” because it ensures that the priority will be to spread the use and availability of vaccine across all countries according to need, treating those at the highest risk first. If the Government are not to be part of the EU scheme, will they at least commit to ensuring that vaccine is available to all, across borders, by priority and that they will not simply prioritise UK people? The coronavirus is not a respecter of international borders.

The Prime Minister has already said exactly that. Of course, we want to collaborate internationally; of course, the virus is affecting virtually every country in the world. We have to work across borders, and the vaccine should go to those who need it most.

My Lords, I understand that the Commission’s vaccine programme has yet to complete a deal, while the Inclusive Vaccines Alliance, led by Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, has closed a non-exclusive deal with AstraZeneca for 400 million doses at cost. The IVA states that its mission is to enable rapid action on vaccine procurement to create added value for European nations and beyond. On this evidence, the IVA may be a more effective vehicle than the official Commission programme. Have the Government had any discussions with the IVA on collaboration and, if not, will the Minister undertake to do so?

I can confirm to my noble friend that we have had discussions with many countries, including those who formed the Inclusive Vaccines Alliance. It is our understanding that the alliance members have now joined the EU procurement initiative, with commercial negotiations being taken forward under that framework. However, as I have said, we will continue to work with the EU and other international partners on development.

My Lords, the Minister has been keen to acknowledge the benefit of international collaboration. If a number of vaccines are successfully produced, one of the great challenges we face is that a significant proportion of people will not take them. Will he at least talk to the EU about collaborating on a European-wide effort to encourage our populations to take up the vaccine?

We are having a number of discussions with the EU on a whole range of initiatives. As I said, we decided not to take part in this scheme for specific reasons, but we do not rule out any future collaboration or co-operation with the EU.

My Lords, in this decision, the United Kingdom has made the right call, given that, like the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy have moved to make their own provision prior to the European Commission initiating action. Given that we pay into the multiannual financial framework until the end of 2020, why were we not permitted to be part of the governance and negotiation? Is that likely to happen if there are future projects? If so, it would be understandable if we went our own way.

Other EU member states would have been able to take part in the governance of the scheme; we would not. Even though the main development is funded from the EU budget, any individual procurement or orders would come from national budgets. Crucially, we would not have been able to negotiate in parallel with other companies with which we already have a good working relationship.

My Lords, new research from King’s College London, in which I declare my interest as an employee, suggests that immunity from Covid-19 may last just a few months, indicating that mass, or herd, immunity from the disease is not an effective strategy, that vaccination boosters may be required, and that any cavalier approach to infection on the basis that one might as well get it in order to acquire the protection of immunity is woefully misguided. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of these findings on their vaccination strategy and their approach to vaccine development?

The Vaccine Taskforce is of course considering all the academic work being done in this field; it is a rapidly developing sphere of science. I am sure that we welcome the work taking place at the institution mentioned by the noble Baroness, but a lot of other research institutes are already looking into it. There are a number of developing vaccine forms which require different manufacturing processes to produce individual vaccines, and we are of course evaluating all of them.

My Lords, there have been some pretty knee-jerk reactions to this announcement. Can the Minister confirm that this decision is not about being against co-operation? Far from it; it is precisely what Brexit and a new policy are about: a new relationship based on co-operation. However, does my noble friend agree that in this crucial step in our battle against the virus it would be entirely inappropriate to hand over decisions about costs, timing and distribution, and even rationing if it came to that, to a European Commission on which there is not a single British voice?

My noble friend makes a good point, but this was an individual decision about this particular programme, which we did not think was well suited to UK needs. We would not have been able to take part in the governance of the scheme or be part of the negotiating team. We would have had no say on what vaccines were procured nor on their price, quantity or delivery schedule, nor even on whether they would be made available to people in this country. It was a pragmatic decision on this particular scheme, but we do not rule out future co-operation with the EU on other schemes.

Sitting suspended.