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Covid-19: Vaccines and Further Variants

Volume 820: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the suppliers of COVID-19 vaccines about updating their effectiveness against further variants of the virus, prior to any delivery of a fourth vaccination to the wider population of the United Kingdom later this year.

My Lords, we are in regular discussions with vaccine developers about the efficaciousness of their existing vaccines and the variant vaccines that they are working on. Both Moderna and Pfizer are conducting clinical trials for omicron-specific variant vaccines. The contracts that we have signed with Pfizer and Moderna contain flexibilities to ensure that the UK can receive any updated vaccine produced, if production is switched. Having had a booster continues to provide a much-improved level of protection against omicron.

My Lords, I am looking forward to my fourth vaccine dose, and to the Government making a decision to have a full rollout in the autumn. It is undoubtedly true that the effectiveness of the vaccine has been to reduce the impact and the great danger, and therefore the knock-on effects on the health service. But it is also true—it is the elephant in the room—that it is not providing immunity. It is very welcome that the noble Baroness has been able to assure us that work is going on, but could this be accelerated on an international basis? This is not just about the UK; this is about a global pandemic which still has not gone away.

The noble Lord is right: the current vaccines are very effective at protecting against serious disease, hospitalisation and death, but not so much against the transmissibility of the disease. UK scientists are in touch with scientists around the world, and we pool information. The noble Lord will be pleased to know that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are being trialled in the US, and tomorrow, trials start at St George’s in London as well.

My Lords, we know that Covid is capable of producing endless variants and that seems to be the problem at the moment. What are the Government doing to try to reduce the risk of these variants? Are they working with countries around the world to get some resolution to this?

As noble Lords will be aware, the best way of reducing the number of variants is to vaccinate as many people in the world as possible. The UK has donated £548 million to COVAX to provide vaccines for people in lower- income countries. We successfully met the PM’s target to donate 30 million vaccines internationally by the end of 2021. We are on track to meet the 100 million target set by the Prime Minister at the G7 last June and have set out a plan to donate 70 million of these. More than 43 million doses have now been delivered, with approximately 38 million having been received by COVAX and 7 million having been delivered directly by the UK to countries in need. These donations have benefited more than 30 countries. I know noble Lords will say that there is more that we can do, and indeed there probably is, but they should rest assured that the Government are working very hard to increase their ability to export these vaccines.

My Lords, despite the Minister’s comments at the beginning of this Question, Nature published a report on 18 March saying that while vaccines protect against the omicron subvariant, their effect really does not last long. Will the Government place an order for the recently approved Evusheld as a pre-exposure prophylaxis drug, which Ministers have promised the very vulnerable since July last year? What steps are the Government taking to protect the severely immunocompromised in the longer term, including in their decision on who will be eligible for free lateral flow tests?

I will do my best to answer the noble Baroness’s question, but it stretches into the health brief somewhat. On protection for the very vulnerable, on Monday we announced the rollout of the programme for the second booster for the vulnerable and the over-75s. It is not possible to predict what the long-term vaccine programme will look like, but undoubtedly there will be another vaccine in the autumn. We already have contracts in place for vaccines that we believe will be effective against any future variants and those trials have already started. Given the way the UK is approving these vaccines, with a rolling programme of research going to the regulatory authority, they can be approved very quickly and could even be introduced by September or October this year.

My Lords, I draw attention to my registered interests. Is the Minister content that we are retaining sufficient capacity and infrastructure for testing and, in particular, genome sequencing of the virus in positive cases? This will inform a better understanding of the emergence of new variants, which will ultimately inform the development of new vaccines.

The noble Lord asks a very good question; unfortunately, I do not think I will be able to give him a proper answer. I suggest that I speak to my colleague in the Department of Health and get him a written answer, which we will make available to all noble Lords.

My Lords, do the Government have any information on people who, having had an injection, have a moderate to serious reaction to it? Is there any evidence that this might suggest that there is already some immunity to the disease?

Again, the noble Lord asks a question which is specifically about the health benefits. This Question was geared more towards manufacturing and the resilience of the UK’s ability to produce vaccines. Again, I suggest that I ask my noble friend in the Department of Health to answer that question in writing.

My Lords, given my noble friend’s earlier commitment to international donation, is it not high time that we made a bilateral donation to Nepal in order to fulfil our duty of care to our 30,000 Gurkha veterans and ensure that they are finally vaccinated? I declare my interest as Deputy Colonel Commandant of the Brigade of Gurkhas.

I acknowledge my noble friend’s particular interest in Nepal and would be very glad to take that request back to the department.

My Lords, while multivariant vaccines would of course be a big step towards living with Covid, the WHO recently advised that the timeframe for their development is somewhat uncertain. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that emerging variants continue to be tackled individually while multi- variant vaccine development is ongoing?

That is precisely what Pfizer and Moderna are doing. They are looking at the different variants and our contracts with them will allow their vaccines to be tweaked in order to cope with those variants. Given the way that the regulatory authorities in this country work, they can now be manufactured very quickly and be available to the public within months.

My Lords, the Minister was so right to say that the best way to fight variants is to defeat the virus worldwide. I am grateful for what she said about donations but, in the scale of things, they are a drop in the ocean. Can she update the House on the Government’s position in the current negotiations at the WTO around the TRIPS waiver and can she say whether, in the negotiations with the drug companies that she referred to, we are using our leverage to ensure that they share their know-how with countries in the global South that could produce generic vaccines for their populations?

I can confirm that all those questions are considered in the round with the vaccine manufacturers we are in discussions with. As to the noble Baroness’s initial question, I shall write.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about the availability of Evusheld for those for whom a vaccine is wholly ineffective or contraindicated. I add that on Monday a study by the Washington University School of Medicine demonstrated that Evusheld was effective in providing protection against all variants of omicron. We as a Government are lagging behind 21 other countries which have entered into contracts for the availability of this for pre-exposure prophylaxis for the severely immunocompromised. Will the Government now act to put that contract in place?

I cannot commit to act but we now have that on the record and I will take it back to the department and make that request directly.

My Lords, I understand that due to the lack of sustainability and diversification of supply of the vaccine, still only 10% of people living in lower-income countries are fully vaccinated. What plans do Her Majesty’s Government have to support the TRIPS waiver for lower-income countries to improve the accessibility of vaccines, tests and treatment?

I said to the noble Baroness’s noble friend that I would write about we are doing on the TRIPS waiver, with which I am not familiar. I will endeavour to include the answer to the noble Baroness’s question in the letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti.

My Lords, those Members of your Lordships’ House, including me, who have recently had this disease, despite being fully vaccinated and boosted, will know that it is not entirely to be treated lightly, even post vaccination. Does the Minister agree that, while we certainly depend on vaccinations for the future and are hoping that they will evolve and become more widely available both here and elsewhere in the world, high levels of public health messaging about other forms of simple protection against transmission of this disease really need to continue and currently they really are not?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point. The “hands, face, space” message has seemingly long disappeared from sight. That is a very worthwhile suggestion, which I will be happy to take back to the Department of Health.