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Covid-19: Vaccine Availability

Volume 804: debated on Tuesday 14 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that a COVID-19 vaccine, if developed, is (1) available to, and (2) affordable for, low- and middle-income countries.

My Lords, the UK is leading international efforts to develop and ensure fair and affordable access to a Covid-19 vaccine. The UK has committed up to £250 million to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and is the largest donor to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. These organisations are key to developing and globally distributing a Covid-19 vaccine. We are committed to working with international partners to develop a vaccine and make it available to all.

I thank the Minister for her reply. However, Gavi and CEPI have taken no action to tackle IP barriers to ensure access for all. The Government cannot assume that access, supply and affordability will simply be dealt with by others through the WHO ACT-Accelerator. Does the Minister agree that there is a critical need for the UK Government to attach conditions, including pricing and transparency controls, to their public funding of the potential vaccine being developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca?

My Lords, we of course support the WHO Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator, a global call to action to accelerate the development and production of and equitable access to new Covid-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. We are working closely with AstraZeneca to ensure that we have the right number of doses in the UK and that they are distributed throughout the developing world.

We all recognise the criticality of a high take-up rate of a vaccine, once one is developed. What steps, if any, are Her Majesty’s Government taking or planning to increase public awareness of the need to engage with the vaccine programme and, probably more importantly, to challenge fears and misconceptions over receiving a vaccine?

My Lords, I completely agree that if—and, we hope, when—a vaccine is developed we need to ensure that it gets to the people who need it most. Getting vaccinated against preventable diseases is the right thing to do to protect others as well as yourself. Since the start of the pandemic, we have been working with specialist government units to identity and rebut false information, and we will be working closely with Gavi and CSOs to make sure that when and if a vaccine is found it is properly distributed.

What assurances can the Minister provide that the forthcoming merger of DfID with the FCO will not impact on its plans to ensure that any Covid-19 vaccine is made available speedily and equitably to low and middle-income countries?

My Lords, with the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office we will be able to maximise both our development and our diplomatic muscle, so I very much hope that the new merger will mean that we are able to do more in this area.

My Lords, whatever the eventual outcome, we must assist countries that are poorer than ours. However, I am concerned that we should not be caught on the back foot if the contingency for which we are now planning—the discovery of an effective vaccine—is not forthcoming. We need contingency plans to deal with the situation either where there is no vaccine or where the vaccine that is discovered has a very short viable life. Is the laudable effort being put into pursuing economic fairness between countries preventing the development of these contingency plans?

My noble friend is right to highlight that. Of course, we do not know whether a vaccine will be found or, if it is, how effective it will be. We are taking a comprehensive approach, making sure that we invest also in globally accessible treatments and tests. We have provided up to £40 million to the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator and up to £23 million to the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics to develop and deliver new Covid-19 tests.

My Lords, Covid-19 is a global pandemic with no respect for national borders. We know that as long as anyone is at risk from this virus, the entire world is at risk. Is the Minister aware of recent polling conducted by the Wellcome Foundation in the UK, the US, Germany and France that shows strong public support for making sure that any new treatments or vaccines are made available first to those who need them most, wherever in the world they live? Does she agree with the overwhelming view expressed there that national Governments should work together on a global response based on need rather than on ability to pay?

My Lords, our best chance of defeating this virus is by working together globally to develop a mass-produced vaccine that is accessible and affordable to all. The UK absolutely supports a global approach to the rapid development and scaled-up manufacture of vaccines, with equitable access to all who need them.

My Lords, what are the Government doing to ensure that rural communities in poorer countries will get access to a vaccine when one becomes available? In the meantime, nutrition is vital for those communities to keep in reasonable health as best they can. Does my noble friend see merit in DfID investment in local laboratories so that, regionally, countries can access not just Covid vaccines but other vaccines and medicines and make them accessible in a timely manner?

My Lords, our £48 million of support for Gavi’s Covid-19 advance market commitment aims to ensure affordable access for developing countries. The UK has a proven track record of leading in this area. Gavi’s new strategy will increase its focus on zero-dose children, with targeted investments in health systems to improve immunisation access in the hardest-to-reach areas. And, of course, we will continue our significant work on nutrition.

My Lords, we are faced with a pandemic that extends across every continent except Antarctica, affecting every country, rich and poor. To follow the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, will the Government encourage the creation of a global fund, as was done in the case of anti-retroviral drugs to combat AIDS, as a matter of urgency to enable all poorer countries to meet the costs of distribution of the drug as soon as it becomes available?

My Lords, we are supporting many international funds to ensure equitable access for all who need it. We support the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, which is the global call to action to accelerate development of a vaccine. We also support the recently formed Covax facility partnership, which is actively taking part in discussions on its mechanism and structure. Under the accelerator, Covax brings together international partners and Governments, and has the potential to ensure that a vaccine is accessible and affordable.

My Lords, Gavi is a success story, and the Government’s commitment to it is great, but Gavi can ask more of pharmaceutical companies. MSF recently made three recommendations to secure equitable access, including: requiring pharmaceutical companies to sell Covid vaccines at cost; boosting transparency, which we do not have enough of at the moment; and ensuring that civil society organisations have a meaningful role in distribution. What steps are the Government taking on these three recommendations?

My Lords, the work in this area is being led by the Vaccine Taskforce in the UK, which will ensure that the work being done in the UK to find a vaccine complements and supports global efforts. I will come back to the noble Lord in writing on the three specific points that he raised.

My Lords, how will the Government influence the US Administration to agree and accelerate the affordable pricing of, and access to, a Covid vaccine?

My Lords, we are working with the US, and indeed all our international partners, to ensure that we have a truly collaborative approach to developing this vaccine.

My Lords, Professor Robin Shattock, head of the research team at Imperial College, said last Sunday that vaccine testing was progressing well. However, it is most likely that a vaccine will be available for mass use by the middle of next year. Do the UK Government have any policy or safeguards in place to stop profiteering from the discovery and to stop more prosperous countries hoarding the vaccine, preventing less-developed countries gaining access to it?

My Lords, we are working closely with all manufacturers to ensure that we have full, affordable access to all vaccines.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her efforts. Will she urge her ministerial colleagues, and indeed the Prime Minister, to provide continued world leadership on vaccine sharing, particularly backing Gavi and Bill and Melinda Gates’s initiative, for all to benefit from vaccine research and progress?

My Lords, our record shows that we are taking a leading role in this. The Prime Minister has consistently called on world leaders to work together to rapidly develop a vaccine and make it available to all, including at the Coronavirus Global Response pledging conference, which the UK co-led, and at the recent Global Citizen summit. The UK also hosted the Gavi summit, which raised over £6.9 billion for Gavi to sustain its immunisation coverage and bolster the primary healthcare systems needed to tackle Covid-19. We will continue to play this leading international role.