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Covid-19: Access to Vaccine

Volume 806: debated on Thursday 15 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure equitable access for low and middle-income countries to any future vaccine for COVID-19.

My Lords, the UK is committed to equitable global access to safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines. Last month, at the UN General Assembly, the Prime Minister announced up to £500 million for the COVAX advance market commitment to provide access to Covid-19 vaccines for 92 developing countries.

My Lords, I welcome the government support from the UK aid budget for the initiatives that the Minister has mentioned. However, we still do not have a way to scale up the global manufacturing capability needed to meet the colossal demand that there will be for a Covid vaccine. There are two initiatives in play: the WHO Covid-19 Technology Access Pool—C-TAP—and today’s proposal to the TRIPS Council by South Africa and India to waive parts of the TRIPS Agreement. Urgent action is needed, so can the Minister say which option the Government favour?

My Lords, we are working closely with the WHO through the ACT accelerator to ensure that we are able to rapidly develop and produce the vaccines as and when they become available.

My Lords, although I too commend the Government for joining the COVAX initiative, I note that experts warn that this plan is no guarantee that Covid-19 vaccines will reach the world’s poor. Is the Minister aware that a team of global experts led by Ezekiel J Emanuel, a distinguished medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, have proposed a new model known as the “fair priority model”? What is the Government’s assessment of this as an alternative plan?

My Lords, the funding I spoke of in my original Answer will contribute to the supply of 1 billion doses in 2021 and the vaccination of up to 500 million people. We believe that the right way forward is for the world to come together through the COVAX commitment. On the specific proposal that the noble Lord mentioned, I will have to look at that in detail and come back to him in writing.

My Lords, it is reported that the UK has bought six experimental vaccines, stockpiling 340 million doses, awaiting the results of clinical trials. While this is probably a wise strategy, can the Minister say how much the Government have paid for these? This is enough to vaccinate our population five times over; will any surplus licensed stock be distributed to poorer countries?

My Lords, our commitment to global access to Covid-19 medical tools includes supporting voluntary methods of sharing intellectual property and non-exclusive voluntary licensing agreements. We think it is right to follow both bilateral deals and the COVAX joint facility to maximise the chances of finding a vaccine.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the Government on joining COVAX and for the significant funding commitment announced at UNGA, but obviously this happened after additional optionality was added to the facility to encourage countries such as the UK, which already have advanced domestic vaccine programmes. Is the Minister confident that vaccine candidates can still be affordably manufactured at scale through COVAX if wealthy countries opt out of certain candidates?

My Lords, doses for the advance market commitment countries will be secured through advance purchase agreements with manufacturers. If countries do not exercise their options to buy a vaccine, it should still be available within COVAX for other countries.

My Lords, I join others in welcoming the Government’s commitment to COVAX and to the WHO aim to distribute vaccines widely to lower- and middle-income countries. However, what safety nets will the Government press both parties to put in place to ensure that the distribution and delivery of the vaccines to individuals is equitable within the countries that are supplied through this system?

My Lords, of course, we recognise the importance of ensuring that any successful vaccine developed can be distributed to all those who need it, particularly in developing countries. The logistics and the support needed for vaccine distribution will be very important. We are working closely with partners like Gavi to help roll that out, and with civil society organisations to make sure that we can get the vaccine to the very people who need it.

My Lords, the Minister just mentioned Gavi. I received its briefing this morning, which announced that 181 countries have signed up to the COVAX Facility. I welcome the UK’s leadership on this, but one country is missing: the United States. What are we doing to ensure that the United States joins the global economy in the fight against this pandemic?

My Lords, we are very pleased with the number of countries, including China, that have signed up to the COVAX Facility. The UK has been working hard with our partners across the world on that. Just yesterday I spoke to some of our team in the Caribbean, who have recently helped all the Caribbean sign up to the COVAX Facility. The US continues to be one of the biggest donors to Gavi’s core immunisation programme, which we of course welcome. We continue to encourage the US to join multilateral efforts to support equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines.

I welcome very much our co-operation with the World Health Organization, and only hope that the United States might rejoin, possibly after 3 November. We must make sure that any vaccine is tried and tested and not inferior; people are probably trying to take advantage and get some personal benefit by distributing unsuitable vaccines. I also suggest that we need an independent body in the UK that is involved not for political gain but only because of its experience and work over the years in bringing vaccines into being.

I completely agree that we must ensure we have community trust in vaccines, which will be essential to persuade people that taking the vaccine is the right thing to do. In the UK the Vaccine Taskforce is leading this work to ensure that, as and when a vaccine is found, it is safe and that we communicate its effectiveness properly.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s commitment to COVAX and the WHO. Will the Minister accept that the vaccine may not be the panacea or exact solution for all countries, including those in conflict regions, where international responses must include the reasonably costed availability of safe and quality medicinal products and equipment, including CPAP systems, for the management of Covid? Notwithstanding the inevitable demands on this side of the planet, what discussion has taken place with countries such as Bangladesh and India, which have excellent reputations in the production of medicines, so that they can be easily available to the regions and elsewhere?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right that we do not know how effective a vaccine may be or when it may come, so of course, we must continue our work across the world, supporting nutrition and handwashing facilities and making sure we are keeping people as safe as possible while we wait for the vaccine. The noble Baroness is also right that we must work with countries that have expertise in this field. On India specifically, we were very pleased to see AstraZeneca’s partnership with the Serum Institute of India; collectively, they will support the production of 1.3 billion doses of the Oxford University vaccine, should it be successful.

My Lords, I applaud the Minister and the Government for their commitment to equitable access to vaccines and COVAX. However, what are the Government doing to combat the anti-vaccine message being put out by some groups, which could undermine mass vaccination at home and, indeed, overseas?

My Lords, getting vaccinated against preventable diseases is of course the right thing to do to protect others. The UK Government take the issue of disinformation very seriously; it is really important at this time of national emergency that the public have accurate information. We are working at pace with partners to help combat false and misleading narratives about coronavirus, making sure that the public have the right information they need to protect themselves.

My Lords, following on from the question from my noble friend Lord Collins, how are we are going to ensure that larger nations such as America do not try to buy all the vaccine, thereby taking it away from other countries, as we have read about in the press recently? What could Britain’s role be in that?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness says, COVAX does not prevent countries signing up to their own bilateral deals, but we really believe that bringing the world together through the COVAX Facility is going to be the best way to prevent vaccine nationalism. We will continue to work with our friends and partners around the world to encourage all countries to sign up to COVAX.