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Covid-19: Surplus Vaccine Doses

Volume 810: debated on Monday 22 February 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Prime Minister’s statement at the G7 Leaders Meeting on 19 February, (1) how, and (2) when, they plan to donate surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to low-income countries.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has committed to equitable access to safe and effective vaccines through multilateral collaboration. COVAX is the best way to deliver this. By pooling global resources, it enables the development, purchase and distribution of vaccines. We will be able to offer vaccines to COVAX only when we are certain that we have doses surplus to the needs of the UK population. That will be a decision for the Health Secretary.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for that update. The Prime Minister rightly got credit after his announcement at the G7 meeting that the UK would donate its surplus vaccines. We know that one of the main issues is supply, but of course it is also cost. I appreciate the Government’s generous funding to COVAX, Gavi and other organisations, but I have just one question for the Minister. Can he confirm that the cost of the surplus doses for low-income countries will be met by the UK and that we are not just transferring the ability to buy the vaccine to COVAX?

My Lords, the details of how and when the vaccines will be shared are still being confirmed, but there are further discussions to be had on the point my noble friend raises with COVAX and vaccine manufacturers. She will be aware that we are contributing £548 million for global equitable access through the COVAX AMC. That remains the primary area of UK support.

My Lords, given the Government’s plan to reduce overseas development assistance by £4 billion—two-sevenths of the budget—there is a real worry that the Government might allow access to the vaccine without actually making any contribution to help developing countries provide it. For example, Malawi is already suffering from an education crisis and an economic crisis as a result of the lockdowns and the virus. Surely we should be helping such countries to deliver that vaccine if it becomes available and making sure that they can afford it, not just aiming for it and hoping for it but actually delivering it.

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that that is exactly the objective of the COVAX AMC commitment, and it is why the UK Government have led on it. Not only have we led on it but the noble Lord will have seen the Prime Minister’s statement which led to other countries also committing to it. This is aimed at the 92 most vulnerable countries and will help to vaccinate more than 1.3 billion people.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that significant ODA funding to Oxford which initially paid for the Ebola vaccine gave us a head start in the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine? Will the Government reconsider their short-sighted policy of cutting ODA funding?

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s second point, the Government have made their position clear. It was a difficult decision, but a necessary one. Nevertheless, it still guarantees £10 billion of support this year. On support to Oxford University, our commitment to UK science has been a major contribution to being where we are on the global stage when it comes to vaccine distribution and research.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on this initiative and on their positive support for COVAX. I note that other countries are making their own unilateral offers. Will the Government, with their influence as president of the G7, take two further initiatives? Will they seek a commitment from G7 countries, and others if possible, to offer a vaccination to all vulnerable people and health and care workers in those 92 countries by a target date of, say, July 2022? Will they seek an agreement to waive parts of the TRIPS agreement on intellectual property so that there are no barriers restricting access to Covid-19 medicines, tools, devices and vaccines?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, Oxford and AstraZeneca have worked very closely on intellectual property. Indeed, close collaboration with the Serum Institute of India has allowed it to produce exactly the same vaccine in India. On his earlier point about COVAX and other countries, he will have noted that UK leadership—we used the first G7 summit led by the Prime Minister—resulted in major contributions to COVAX, not least $4 billion from the United States as well as from the European Commission and Germany.

We are a charitable and generous country, but we can do more than just hand over our spare vaccines to save lives in the developing world. Perhaps the reduction, which has been mentioned, from 0.7% to 0.5% should be put on hold, with that £4 billion used in 2021 to buy vaccines to save lives in low-income countries. Can the Minister confirm whether the 0.2% reduction began in January or will begin in April at the start of the financial year? Will he also confirm that there will be a vote in both Houses before the 0.7%, which is enshrined in law, is cut?

My Lords, I am all too aware of the strong sentiments about the Government’s announcement on ODA spending. Of course, the Government are working through, and we have previously said we will come back to your Lordships’ House on the provisions we need to make in legislation. On my noble friend’s earlier point, I totally agree with him, but I assure him that it is not just our funding of COVAX and the AMC facility. My noble friend will also be aware of the commitment we have given to Gavi, CEPI and the World Health Organization to ensure equitable access not just in our fight against Covid-19 but in other pandemics as well.

My Lords, approaches are developing that enable individuals to give into the COVAX fund in gratitude for having received their vaccination against Covid-19. How are Her Majesty’s Government encouraging the development of such initiatives? Will they support such approaches through match funding from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office?

My Lords, our initial funding of the AMC was very much based on match funding. We have seen that coming through and there are valuable contributions that other key partners can make. We are working very closely with the Gates Foundation among others to ensure that support for Gavi, the AMC and, particularly, for those most vulnerable is something not just for Governments but for the private sector as well.

My Lords, I must admit that I am a bit disappointed that the Minister was unable to give a straight answer to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, in relation to what donation means. In the G7 statement made by the Prime Minister there was a welcome commitment to sharing technology. Can the Minister give us a bit more detail on what that means and, particularly, will the Government support the WHO Covid-19 Technology Access Pool?

First, and foremost, I am surprised that the noble Lord expresses disappointment. If anyone has led on this, particularly with the World Health Organization, within Gavi and on COVAX, it is the United Kingdom, and that is resulting in other countries stepping up. The reason I did not answer specifically is that we are having discussions in that respect. On the noble Lord’s general point, I assure him that we are very much committed to ensuring the success of the rollout and equitable access. As the COVAX facility makes further announcements in the coming few weeks, that will become all the more clear.

My Lords, one of the core elements of the COVAX approach is to strengthen health systems in developing countries. Key to that is the bilateral support that countries such as the UK will provide them. Given that the Government’s intention is to breach the law and the undertaking to meet 0.7% support, there could now be cuts of up to 50% to the UK’s bilateral support for these countries. Instead of moving ahead with this, could the Government consider a moratorium on the cuts and guarantee that UK support to strengthen health systems in developing countries to distribute the vaccine will not be cut?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, I have already made the Government’s position clear. On the noble Lord’s second point, of course supporting countries’ health systems bilaterally remains a key priority, but there are challenges ahead with the reduced spending on ODA. They are currently under review at the FCDO.

My Lords, we welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement at the G7 that we will provide surplus vaccines to other countries. Is the Minister aware that India has already supplied over 10 million vaccines to other countries, including, in the announcement last week, the supply of 200,000 doses to UN peacekeepers worldwide? They are being manufactured by the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India, owned by the Poonawalla family. Does the Minister also agree that, when we increase our inoculations from 500,000 to 1 million a day, we can commence our own vaccine diplomacy as global Britain?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point about vaccine distribution, we welcome all countries that are helping to meet the challenge of the pandemic. The noble Lord will be aware of the central role that the United Kingdom played in facilitating early engagement between the Serum Institute and the United Kingdom, and between AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in ensuring the scaling-up of production that we now see in India. India is the pharmacy of the world, which is reflected in its mass production. The Prime Minister made it very clear that the UK’s excess vaccine will be aimed primarily at the COVAX facility, because we believe that it guarantees the most equitable distribution.

I also warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment, which he gave at the G7. I think we can take some gentle pride in Britain leading by example, but can my noble friend say whether all our vaccine effort for poorer countries will go through COVAX or whether any of it will be direct? What preparations does COVAX have in place to ensure that the vaccines are distributed fairly and do not fall into the hands of elites and middlemen, with all the corruption that foreign aid has sadly, and all too often, entailed?

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s support. On his specific questions, we are not at the point where we can make specific pledges about excess vaccines, but I note what my noble friend said about support for particular countries. We will support primarily the AMC facility at COVAX, which we have led, to ensure the most equitable access. He makes an important point about distribution, which we will be monitoring closely with our key partners, including UNICEF, which is a key agency in the distribution of these vaccines.

The Minister continues to be suspiciously vague about whether the Government will simply transfer the right to buy vaccine supplies rather than pay for them themselves. No doubt this will be seen as an instrument of British foreign policy, so will the UK be claiming credit for its generosity in the recipient countries, if it does turn out to be generous, and will we be content to see these vaccines going to countries whose Governments are engaging, for example, in genocide or human rights abuses?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, by working with key partners we will ensure that the most vulnerable communities receive the vaccine irrespective of where they are within countries. I am sorry if there are specifics that I cannot go into, because they are matters for discussion, and no Minister would provide that detail if it is yet to be determined. However, I challenge him. The UK Government have been leading the charge in our response to this global pandemic. The British Government, under this Prime Minister, have ensured that the facility that we now have, through the COVAX AMC, will provide for the most vulnerable around the world. That is something not to be proud of, but to recognise.

My Lords, I am proud of and recognise the initiative, and I congratulate the Government on it. However, to reinforce slightly what I think the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, was trying to say, given that we have had a cut in overseas development aid, it would be wonderful if we could make this a real gift and not one that needs to be underwritten by anybody else.

My Lords, I have already said where we are on ODA. As ever, I make note of the strong sentiments in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, I join in applauding the Government’s leadership in its support for the COVAX facility, but does the Minister recognise that only today the World Health Organization’s director-general expressed concern that COVAX is having problems trying to source early supply of vaccine, while at the same time some of the richest countries in the world continue to contract for early delivery of vaccine? We need to take an initiative to enable the rich countries to secure early vaccine supply to COVAX. I wonder if the Government can use their leadership in COVAX to secure that kind of initiative.

My Lords, I hear my noble friend, who speaks with great experience of the health sector. As he is aware, COVAX is explicitly designed to work for high-income, low-income and middle-income countries. That is why the Government led the AMC facility to ensure equitable access to the 92 most vulnerable countries. We continue to collaborate with other key partners through our influence at the World Health Organization, GAVI and CEPI to ensure that the COVAX AMC facility is fully supported by all.