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Covid-19: Vaccine Donations

Volume 816: debated on Monday 29 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to donate COVID-19 vaccines to other countries bilaterally.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare my interest as deputy colonel commandant of the Brigade of Gurkhas.

My Lords, the UK will continue to donate Covid-19 vaccines to bilateral partners in line with the Prime Minister’s commitment at the G7 summit in June 2021. The primary objective is to promote the economic development and welfare of recipient countries, although we will also seek to strengthen key relationships in line with the integrated review as a secondary benefit. Decisions are taken on a case-by-case basis when vaccines are available to be donated.

May I seek my noble friend’s reassurance on two points: first, that we will donate, not destroy, surplus vaccines; secondly, that he will look again at the request from the Government of Nepal for a bilateral donation, not least so that we can fulfil our commitment and our duty of care to vaccinate some 30,000 British Army Gurkha veterans who live there?

My Lords, the UK donated 130,000 Covid vaccines to Nepal in August, recognising the historic link between our two countries. Since the beginning of the pandemic, our embassy in Kathmandu has reprioritised more than £40 million of development aid to help address the medical and socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic. In response to Nepal’s second wave of infections, the UK has delivered an additional package of support, including donating 260 ventilator machines, thousands of pieces of personal protective equipment and constructing an oxygen plant in Kathmandu.

In the light of the new omicron variant that has dominated the news over the weekend, my colleague Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town urged those of us in rich countries to do better at narrowing inequality of vaccination rates, which are 7% in Africa and 70% in Europe. We must acknowledge that this virus knows no national boundaries and will spread, mutate and return to us in the way that we are seeing, so we need a global approach, not simply a bilateral approach. Will Her Majesty’s Government’s commit to redoubling efforts to seek a truly global approach to vaccine donation to ensure that people in all nations are safer?

My Lords, the Government strongly agree and we are committed to supporting rapid, equitable access to safe and effective vaccines through multilateral co-operation to end the acute phase of this pandemic. That is why the UK supports the COVAX facility and was one of the first countries to do so. It is, as the right reverend Prelate knows, a multilateral mechanism that supports access by pooling resources to accelerate the development, manufacture and delivery of vaccines. More than 537 million vaccines have so far been delivered globally through that scheme.

My Lords, I appreciate the Minister setting out what the UK has done, but when we look at vaccination rates in low-income countries, it is clear that the UK and, indeed, all high-income countries have just not done enough. Can the Minister say how many vaccines the UK has drawn down from the COVAX facility and how many vaccines have been destroyed as close to or past their use-by date?

As my noble friend will know, COVAX is designed to work for both high and middle-income countries; this allows for the pooling of investments behind early vaccine candidates. The UK has procured 539,370 doses of the Pfizer vaccine through COVAX; those were delivered early this year. These doses help the NHS to deliver our vaccination programme as quickly as possible. No further doses have been received by the UK from COVAX. I am afraid I cannot answer my noble friend’s question on the waste of unused vaccines, but clearly, it is in all our interests and a key priority that we minimise any potential waste.

My Lords, in May this year, as president of the CBI, I chaired the B7. Dr Gita Gopinath, chief economist of the IMF, spoke at it and in May sent me a report called A Proposal to End the COVID-19 Pandemic. It would cost $50 billion to vaccinate the whole world by the first half of 2022. If one company, Serum Institute of India, can produce 1 billion vaccines, surely the Minister and the Government agree that we should follow the recommendations of this report, pull together and end this pandemic. Until we are all safe, no one is safe.

The noble Lord is absolutely right that until we are all safe, no one is safe. That is why the UK has been if not the biggest contributor then certainly one of the biggest contributors to the COVAX scheme. As the noble Lord says, making vaccines available globally not only helps to end the pandemic in developing countries but reduces the threat posed by vaccine-resistant variants emerging in areas with large-scale outbreaks, which of course threatens the UK. It is in all our interests that we do so.

My Lords, it is a bitter irony indeed that tomorrow’s ministerial meeting of the WTO has had to be cancelled indefinitely because of a variant that could have been prevented had we all collaborated sooner on, for example, the TRIPS waiver. Given that the overwhelming majority of the R&D money spent on vaccines came from public and philanthropic funds, is it not time that the European Union stopped blocking the TRIPS waiver and that Her Majesty’s Government sided with the United States, India, South Africa and much of the global south, so that we do not just donate but collaborate over patents and know-how?

My Lords, the UK is engaging intensively and constructively in the TRIPS waiver debate. We continue to be open to all ideas that have a positive impact on vaccine production and distribution. A balanced and effective intellectual property regime has proved invaluable in this crisis, as in others, in supporting innovation and collaboration. In the meantime, we know we need to continue to push ahead with pragmatic action now, including voluntary licensing and technology transfer agreements.

My Lords, did the Minister have a chance to listen to last night’s broadcast by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa? He said that

“the Omicron variant should be a wake-up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot be allowed to continue … Until everyone is vaccinated, we should expect … more variants … Instead of prohibiting travel, the rich countries … need to support the efforts of developing economies to access and to manufacture enough … doses for their people”.

In light of those comments, will the Government convene an urgent meeting of the G7 to tackle the issue of the TRIPS waiver—we do not have time to wait—but also to agree an economic support package for southern African economies, which will be devastated by this travel ban?

My Lords, I did not hear the broadcast, but I heard the summary of the message. I do not think anyone pretends it is an either/or decision: either blocking flights temporarily into this country or enabling the widespread vaccination of vulnerable populations. Our view is that both are necessary as immediate-term steps. The G7 has been dominated by discussions around this issue, and no doubt that will continue.

My Lords, too many of the vaccines gifted to the poorest countries are within 12 weeks of their use-by dates. These short lead times between donation and expiry show why a strengthened G20 and a month-to-month delivery timetable are now urgent. Will the Government follow the Swiss example of expeditious transferring of delivery dates with their recent transfer to COVAX? We can act now and have an effect now.

My Lords, the UK does not hold a stockpile of Covid vaccines; we manage the supply chain carefully. However, for all bilateral donations we sought assurances that recipients have the capacity to roll out the quantity of doses in line with the national vaccination programmes and ahead of their expiry dates. For donations through COVAX, the UK is working closely with both COVAX and its partners—such as UNICEF—to allocate vaccines according to need, facilitate the rapid delivery of doses and maximise the shelf-life available to recipients.

My Lords, I return to the issue posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. The WTO’s waiver—the TRIPS waiver—was activated for antiretroviral drugs at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Can the Minister say exactly what the blockages are at the moment? This would be one good way of getting Covid vaccines much more rapidly produced and distributed in the countries that need them most.

The noble Baroness is right and that is why the UK is engaging actively in this debate. I will ask my colleagues across government in whose department this sits to provide an update, which I will share with the noble Baroness.

My Lords, only 2% of people in low-income countries have received vaccines—woefully short of what is needed if we are to put this behind us. I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Oates: we are still president of the G7 and we should use that power to convene another meeting, a global summit on vaccines. I ask the Minister to put this to the Government.