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Covid-19: Vaccine Production

Volume 812: debated on Thursday 17 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in discussions with members of the World Trade Organization to facilitate increased production and supply of COVID-19 vaccines.

My Lords, the UK is proud to be playing a global leading role in the development and distribution of coronavirus vaccines. What is now needed most is the scaling up of existing and new vaccine production to achieve equitable, affordable access for all. We continue to engage actively and constructively at the WTO regarding increasing the production and supply of Covid-19 vaccines.

My Lords, the temporary TRIPS waiver proposed by South Africa and India to the WTO is supported by the US and France, as well as the leaders of the COVAX initiative—Gavi and the WHO—which has proven entire-chain processes that deliver to the last mile. Does the Minister agree that the counter-proposal by the European Commission to encourage voluntary action and reliance on compulsory licences is a red herring, because both options already exist? Millions of people have died while we rely on the good will of big pharma, which has yet again failed the humanity test.

I am afraid that I do not agree with the noble Baroness. We are working with industry, the COVAX Manufacturing Task Force and the ACT-A Vaccine Manufacturing Working Group to champion other routes to scale up capacity and engage on forward supply chain planning in order to accelerate and progress vaccination programmes across the world. We think that is the best way forward.

Ensuring accessible and affordable Covid-19 vaccines across the globe is a human rights duty that requires international co-operation. Can the Minister give details of government support for the WHO Technology Access Pool, and have the Government ensured that the intellectual property in respect of vaccines developed with the support of public funding has been deposited with C-TAP, in order to scale up production in countries that have untapped capacity?

It is not simply a question of scaling up untapped capacity; producing these vaccines is complicated and technically challenging, and we need the support of big pharma to do it. There are few facilities across the world that can produce them properly and we have seen, even in the West, how some batches have gone wrong because of manufacturing problems. However, we are proud to be working with the COVAX initiative. We have helped to raise more than £1 billion through match funding other donors. Combined with our aid, that is helping to distribute 1.8 billion doses across the world.

My Lords, AstraZeneca has been generous in providing vaccines to the world at cost. Do other companies oppose the principle of giving up their intellectual property rights in respect of these vaccines? As there is a humanitarian justification in their allowing the world to so benefit, would there be any merit in naming and shaming such big pharma companies?

It remains the case that we have not seen any convincing evidence that intellectual property is a limiting factor in the production and/or supply of Covid vaccines or other technologies. As the noble Lord points out, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is being made available at cost.

My Lords, first, I congratulate the Government, through my noble friend, on the success of the UK vaccine rollout and the involvement with AstraZeneca, whose vaccine is widely being offered on a no-profit basis, as has been said. While I hope for our continuing commitment in assisting with worldwide protection, can my noble friend confirm that, in any discussions on possible intellectual property waivers, he will ensure that standards of production and vaccine quality will not be prejudiced at all?

I thank my noble friend for his comments and he makes a very good point, the same point that I made earlier. Production of these vaccines is technically complicated, particularly the mRNA vaccines. There are not really any other production facilities outside the West in the property of big pharmaceutical companies that are able to produce them. It is not a question of simply waiving the IP rights and allowing anybody to produce them.

My Lords, paragraph 10 of the G7 communiqué refers to 700 million doses being made available from domestic productions, over half of which have gone to other G7 countries. Uganda, for example, is paying three times as much as the EU and the UK for the AstraZeneca vaccine because of the limit and because it is not using the WHO Technology Access Pool. Will the Government think again and open up access to technology and know-how in order to allow other countries to increase domestic production, so that they pay the same to AstraZeneca as the UK is paying?

I am not sure that the noble Lord’s figures are correct. I will certainly write to him if that is not the case, but my understanding is that the vaccines are being distributed at cost. AstraZeneca already has supply agreements—with the Serum Institute of India, for example, to produce 1 billion doses. We will donate 100 million surplus coronavirus vaccine doses within the next year. We are committed to helping the third world to access the vaccines it needs.

My Lords, as the Minister said, the process of manufacturing vaccines is complex and difficult, as we saw with Johnson & Johnson in America, for example. The fastest and best way to set up large-scale vaccine manufacturing in developing countries is for the rights holders to invest. Will our Government work with IP holders such as AstraZeneca to set up across the world? We do not need to deprive them of their rights. The Oxford/AstraZeneca group intends its vaccine to be for the world; will our Government help it to deliver that?

My noble friend is correct and speaks with great authority on this subject, but the best way forward is voluntary licensing and technology transfer partnerships. They are making a real and positive impact on vaccine delivery, and the UK Government will of course do all we can to facilitate this process.

My Lords, as president of the CBI, I chaired the B7, which fed into the G7. The B7 was attended by Dr Ngozi, the new director-general of the WTO. There was unanimous agreement on the free flow of trade for the manufacture and distribution of vaccines. Do the Government agree that there needs to be unhindered trade for vaccine manufacture and distribution? The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, for example, contains 280 different components, manufactured in 86 different sites across 19 countries. Does the Minister also agree that, although it is good that the UK and US have agreed to supply 600 million surplus doses of vaccines around the world, what is actually needed is for the wealthiest countries in the world to urgently finance and help enable the manufacture and distribution of 11 billion doses, including at the Serum Institute of India, which the Minister just mentioned?

There was a lot in those questions. The best way to facilitate this is through the COVAX initiative. The UK is proud to be one of its largest funders. We have helped to raise almost $1 billion for that initiative, which is helping to supply vaccines to 92 developing countries across the world.

The G7 leaders’ communiqué notes

“the positive impact that voluntary licensing and technology transfer on mutually agreed terms have already made to increasing global supply.”

But untransparent exclusive bilateral voluntary licences from pharmaceutical companies have led to the grossly insufficient quantities of Covid-19 vaccines that we see today. I return to the line of questioning of the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis: will the UK Government not continue to miss the point but instead use their initiative and push pharmaceutical companies to share intellectual property and tech through the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool?

My Lords, the intellectual property for the AstraZeneca vaccine, as is known, is actually owned by the University of Oxford. We will of course work with the companies and everyone possible to make sure that the third world is vaccinated, because that is in our interests. That is why we have contributed so much to the COVAX initiative.

Does the Minister agree that it was ODA funding to the Jenner Institute, for the Ebola crisis, that helped to underpin what it was later able to do in this pandemic? Has any new money been allocated by the UK to COVAX since the ODA cut last year?

We have donated £548 million to the COVAX initiative, which has been match funded to a total of $1 billion.

My Lords, given the government statement at the TRIPS council meeting on 9 June that suggested that

“vaccines for new pandemics will simply not be developed”

if there is action on intellectual property, what role does the Minister consider the £100 billion in taxpayer subsidies played in Covid-19 vaccine development? Will he confirm that, apart from the role of big pharma, to which he has referred, 97% of the costs of developing the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine were covered by public funds?

A strong IP system is crucial in supporting the rapid development of new vaccines, but the noble Lord is right: we contributed extensive taxpayer funds to supporting it.

My Lords, as my noble friend has said, ramping up production of vaccines is key in the medium and long term but, in the short term, rich countries such as ours have been fortunate enough to be able to buy sufficient vaccines to vaccinate our population many times over. The 100 million doses the UK has now committed is a welcome first step, but 70 million will not be distributed until next year. Given that we will have fully vaccinated our adult population by the end of the summer, can my noble friend look again at the timing of our contribution?

We will certainly look at it, as my noble friend suggests, but the Prime Minister has announced that the UK will share 100 million doses within the next year, of which 30 million will be delivered by the end of 2021. We currently do not have any surplus vaccines and the health of the UK public remains our first priority. But I agree with my noble friend that this virus will not truly be beaten until it is defeated everywhere. We have been committed to affordable access to vaccines for all since the start of the pandemic, and this announcement is another tangible demonstration of that.