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Vaccine Distribution

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 6 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had in the last month with vaccine manufacturers on vaccine distribution.

My Lords, the Vaccine Taskforce is in constant communication with vaccine manufacturers to carefully manage UK vaccine supply. Due to commercial sensitivities, we are unable to comment on the details of these discussions. The UK manages our vaccine supply so that all procured doses are either used in the domestic programme or shared internationally. We continue to ensure that any vaccine that the UK does not need is, wherever possible, reallocated to other countries that require it.

My Lords, how do we justify a vaccination programme that leaves the third world innocently unable to stop disease spread to the unvaccinated in the developed world? If the answer is vaccine supply shortage on the one hand and refusenik human rights on the other, then why not respond by challenging patents, increasing vaccine manufacture and now, while resisting mandatory vaccination, selectively isolating refuseniks where they risk spreading the disease? Or is it that refusenik rights outweigh those of the vulnerable millions who are now forced to work from home, as I am having to do, as the disease spreads?

My Lords, it is important to recognise that, as has been said repeatedly, there is a global response to this; that is why the UK led on supporting the COVAX Facility. The noble Lord refers to the developing part of the world, and he will be aware, for example, of the additional donations promised by the Prime Minister. Some 20% are going bilaterally, and this includes countries such as Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica and Mozambique. We are also working on technical support, which has ensured the manufacture of vaccines within, for example, South Africa.

My Lords, the Minister has referred to the commitment we made in the summer of 100 million surplus doses to the world. How many of those 100 million have now been distributed? Are the Government working with companies such as the Serum Institute of India, the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world and producer of over a billion doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine? India has allowed vaccine exports since November, having previously stopped them. Are we using facilities such as that to fulfil our commitment?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we are working with our partners. To date, the UK has delivered 23.3 million doses to countries in need, of which 17.8 million have been delivered via COVAX and a further 5.5 million donated directly. We are aiming to complete the promise of 100 million doses by the summer, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister stated. The Government are directly involved and continue to work with India, particularly the Serum Institute, on the distribution and continued manufacture of the AZ vaccine.

My Lords, is it not the case that some vaccines need to be distributed in refrigerated facilities, and is this not a restricting consideration?

My noble friend is quite right. That is why the Government have worked directly with key countries, because the issue is one not just of supply but of final supply, in terms of the final hour of the vaccine. So, we are working with key countries, including South Africa, to ensure a whole of supply chain response to that issue.

My Lords, the Minister just told the House that at this time of great urgent need in developing countries around the world, less than one-third of what the UK committed has been distributed to those countries. According to Our World in Data this morning, the percentages of people fully vaccinated are 77% in Canada, 74% in Italy, 73% in France and 70% in the UK, but in Africa it is 9.5%. When will this discrepancy end, and when will the developed world act on a moral basis to ensure that the whole world, especially the developing world, has the kind of access that we have here?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we are working with the developing world. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, just pointed to our partnership with India, which has been crucial in terms of distribution and manufacture. But we have provided, for example, technical support to develop business cases for the Biovac company to manufacture vaccines in South Africa, to the Institut Pasteur in Dakar, Senegal, and directly to the Moroccan Government. We are also ensuring that our bilateral donations are targeted to the developing world.

My Lords, following on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, do Her Majesty’s Government consider that vaccine manufacturers should release the IP of the vaccine to help reduce transmission and possibly prevent further variants developing, which would eventually affect the UK in the long run?

My Lords, I believe the noble Baroness is referring to the continuing discussions at the WTO on the intellectual property rights waiver proposed by South Africa and India. In this regard, we are continuing to engage directly with key partners at the World Trade Organization, but the one caveat I would share is that there is no evidence that an IP waiver would help us meet that goal. The reality is that the proposal for the TRIPS waiver would actually dismantle to a certain extent the very framework that has helped produce Covid-19 vaccines at an unprecedented pace.

Can the Minister give us any good news about the supply of vaccines to places such as Gaza and the West Bank of Palestine and other refugee situations, which are particularly vulnerable because of overcrowding and general squalor?

My Lords, I can share that we are looking particularly at issues of dense populations in countries and at the point the noble Lord raises about refugees. In this regard, we are working very closely with the World Health Organization, and indeed UNICEF, through the COVAX Facility.

My Lords, vaccine supply is just one part of the picture. We know from this country that rollout and vaccine confidence are just as important, and the UK has extensive experience in some of the countries with the lowest uptake. Can the Minister say what steps we are taking with the COVAX programme and others to improve uptake?

My Lords, my noble friend speaks with great insight on this issue; let me assure her that we are working on the very basis that she outlined. It is important to recognise what the issues preventing vaccination are. It is not just about supply; it is about distribution, infrastructure and vaccine hesitancy. We are working quite closely, as I said, with the likes of UNICEF but also with NGOs on the ground. Recently, for example, we have also met the Anglican Communion to see what its network can do. I will be convening a meeting of faith NGOs to ensure that we can leverage the networks they have across the world.

My Lords, one of the things we could have more of is greater transparency on this issue. Last month, the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, was unclear on, or did not know, whether Gordon Brown was correct in stating that the UK had 33 million vaccine doses that we could immediately deliver to the rest of the world without impacting our own vaccine programme. The noble Lord also spoke about manufacturing and supporting the Partnership for African Vaccine Manufacturing. Can the Minister tell us today about that road map announced in December? Just how much progress will be made? How many new manufacturing facilities will be open in Africa by the end of the 12 months promised?

My Lords, on the specific issue within Africa, we are working, for example, with the African Union as well as with key countries—South Africa being one of them, as I have illustrated—in opening up those manufacturing facilities. For example, we have given £20 million to the AU fund on the Covid-19 response, which constitutes about 7% of the overall response of the African Union to the Covid-19 vaccine. That includes all issues of supply chain and manufacture. On the issue of excess vaccines which the noble Lord alluded to, I can assure him that there are no excess vaccines that we sustain. Of course, we need to ensure that we secure our domestic supply, but also, at the same time, both bilaterally and through COVAX, that there is a global distribution.

My Lords, the WHO and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have asked that vaccines have a minimum shelf life of two and a half months on arrival and that countries receive at least a month’s notice. Can the Minister reassure the House that our Government take on board those eminently sensible requests and are acting on them?

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that the Government always listen to eminently sensible requests and will continue to co-operate accordingly.

My Lords, will the Minister give an absolute assurance that in any new creation of vaccines and in all distributions, Northern Ireland will be treated as part of the United Kingdom’s distribution and not be subject to any EU disagreements over the protocol?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will know, the FCDO has taken on the responsibility of the Brexit negotiations. The very point the noble Baroness raises will be paramount to my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary.