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Covid-19: Vaccine Trials

Volume 809: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of how many people from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities participated in COVID-19 vaccine trials.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and I declare my interests in the register.

The NHS Covid-19 vaccine research registry has helped to facilitate the rapid recruitment of large numbers of people into trials. The Government have encouraged a diverse pool of people to volunteer to help researchers to better understand the effectiveness of each vaccine candidate. As of 12 January, more than 28,000 individuals from BAME communities have volunteered to take part in clinical trials.

In the first wave of the pandemic and the lockdown a report stated that a high proportion of black, Asian and ethnic-minority people were dying of the virus. In the second and third lockdowns there was no mention of their effect on these communities and on the death rate. With the vaccine being rolled out, I have heard messages from the black community about their mistrust of and lack of confidence in the vaccine. I ask Her Majesty’s Government: what proportion of those taking part in the vaccine trials were black, Asian or from ethnic minorities before the rollout?

I pay tribute to the work the noble Baroness has done on this important subject. It is vital to point out that the vaccines have been deployed only as they have been proven to be safe and effective by our independent medicines regulator. Everyone from all communities can be absolutely confident that no corners have been cut. The Government are sponsoring content on social media channels and on a range of news media outlets to get this message out to provide information and advice to communities, in many different languages. I can tell the noble Baroness that, in the Oxford trial, 830 BAME participants took part out of a total of 9,531, which is just under 9%. That data is from September 2020.

Is it not the case, though, that the key point is the sample profile, not just the raw numbers? In the case of Covid-19, the research looked at efficacy in adults across all ethnic groups, with some skewing for the older age groups. Against that, will the Minister confirm that the regulator would have been party to signing off the research in the first place?

The audio was a little unclear and I did not quite catch all of that question, but I can certainly confirm that the regulator is of course aware of all the information supplied on the research and the trials, and on the participants in the scheme, and signed it off for use by all communities.

My Lords, the Government know that there is deep scepticism and distrust, especially in urban and black youth communities and among the under-40s, over the efficacy of the vaccine. There is profound suspicion. Given the prevalence of this fear over reason and the need to build confidence through very local, trusted community facilities such as fast-food outlets, barbers, local pharmacies, community food shops and tech repair centres, will the Government agree to work with a consortium of black-led research and impact agencies to get the rollout done in a trusted way, and not use the standard hyper-expensive PR firms, which do not know this community?

The noble Lord makes some very good points. Vaccine misinformation is harmful, and the Government are working with developers, manufacturers, industry and communities to present a clear picture of the rollout process. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence, we are also sponsoring content on social media channels and a range of news media outlets to provide information and advice to communities in numerous different languages.

Ensuring that participants in Covid-19 research proportionately represent the ethnicity of the wider population is vital to ensure that the new treatments and vaccines being investigated are effective for everybody, including people from different ethnicities. What steps are researchers taking to recruit more clinical trial volunteers from ethnic minority communities to take part in urgent public health studies to help tackle these disparities in health outcomes?

We have set up the vaccine registry, a new NHS service launched in July 2020, to enable people from across the UK to sign up for information on Covid-19 vaccine trials. This research registry is extremely important and we are using all available channels to encourage people from all communities to sign up for these trials.

My Lords, Public Health England published a review last summer which found that people from ethnic minorities were more likely to die from Covid-19. Ministers promised to take steps to reduce disparities and the risk of these outcomes. I raised this point on a number of occasions, but this pledge has not yet been honoured. It is no wonder that there is still mistrust in many communities when apparently no priority has been given to addressing the mistrust that many people from ethnic minorities now have in the vaccine. Will the Minister take steps to ensure that the Government set up a dedicated website with frequently asked questions targeting vulnerable groups, to restore trust and transparency? Also, last June, the Health Secretary indicated that black and ethnic-minority communities could be prioritised when the vaccine was developed. Why has this not happened?

I will certainly take the noble Baroness’s suggestions back to my department and the Department of Health to look at. It is important to point out that there is no strong evidence that ethnicity by itself or genetics are the sole explanation for observed differences in rates of severe illness and death in minority communities. What is clear is that certain health conditions are associated with an increased risk of serious disease, and these conditions are often over- represented in certain black, Asian and minority-ethnic groups. The prioritisation of people with underlying health conditions will also provide for greater vaccination among those in BAME communities who are disproportionately affected by such health outcomes.

Following up on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, there is increasing evidence of hesitancy to take Covid-19 vaccinations, particularly within some minority communities. It is vital that we persuade as many people as possible to take the vaccine for the fight against this pandemic to be won. I am currently involved in a national community-led campaign to be launched to encourage everyone to take the vaccine. Will my noble friend the Minister meet me and members of the group to discuss ways in which the Government can support us in this important initiative?

I pay tribute to the work that the noble Lord is doing. It is through exactly such examples as this, from community leaders and others, that we will help to get that message across. I am very happy to arrange a meeting for him with officials, to see how that work can be taken forward.

I thank my noble friend Lady Lawrence and echo what she has said about the suspicion and lack of confidence within many communities. Can the Minister confirm the numerous health reports from experts who suggest that there are higher numbers of deaths, admissions and infection among the Bangladeshi community in particular? How many of the 830 who took part in vaccine trials were from the Bangladeshi community? What are the Government doing to ensure that that community is continually consulted and considered?

I do not have specific information on the Bangladeshi community and how many took part in the trials. I only have the information on BAME communities as a whole. These distinctions are quite hard to draw sometimes, but certainly if that information is available, I will write to the noble Baroness.

I welcome this Question, because it shows how we are all in this together, without regard to nationality, ethnic group or blood group. The Prime Minister said that the two nurses helping him most when he was in hospital were from Portugal and from New Zealand. The first vaccine came from Belgium. We are all in this together. The virus is no respecter of persons. Neither are we relying on our own people to nurse and to be medics—

All I ask is for an assurance from the Minister that, when this is over, those on the front line who have been so devoted to us will be allowed to stay in the United Kingdom and not cast to one side.

My Lords, the Minister will be familiar with the polling which shows that, although BAME communities were initially less likely to accept a Covid vaccine than white communities, when they had the opportunity to discuss their concerns with a healthcare professional, they were more likely than white communities to be persuaded to have the vaccine. Is my noble friend familiar with this polling, and what work is being done in government to follow up?

My noble friend makes some important points. We are indeed working closely with health experts to provide information and advice at every possible opportunity to all communities across the country. The NIHR launched a public campaign to raise awareness among people from BAME back- grounds, partnering with British comedian Omid Djalili, alongside Whoopi Goldberg, Sanjeev Bhaskar and other leaders, who can offer examples to the community of how important it is to take part in research and receive the vaccines when they are available.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I underline the point made by the Leader, that questions should be kept short and confined to two points. It is unfair to everybody else if that rule is not followed. We now go on to the second Oral Question.