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Covid-19: Global Vaccine Inequity

Volume 821: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to increase the United Kingdom’s role and contributions to address COVID-19 vaccine inequity across the world.

My Lords, the United Kingdom is at the forefront of the international response to Covid-19, spending over £2.1 billion since 2020 to address its impacts. We are keeping further support under review. Our funding has enabled COVAX to deliver over 1 billion vaccines to 86 developing countries. With supply no longer a major issue, the United Kingdom is also now focusing on tackling delivery bottlenecks and improving uptake to meet country targets, working closely with the COVAX Covid-19 vaccine delivery partnership.

My Lords, we are now just two months away from the WHO target of vaccinating 70% of the world, yet across Africa just 17% have had their first jab. The pandemic is not over—far from it. Some 700,000 Covid deaths have been recorded across the world in the last three months, and the vast majority of those were unvaccinated people. Can the Minister say when Britain will follow Germany’s example and provide 2022 funding to the global Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator, specifically our fair share contribution of £750 million? For wealthy countries, this is surely a small price to pay, not just to help vaccine supply but to support struggling health systems across low-income countries, and indeed to protect us all from the emergence of another variant.

My Lords, we have worked very much at the heart of the COVAX facility. We were the first country to commit over £0.5 billion to COVAX so that vaccines could reach the most vulnerable. The noble Lord is of course correct that there is more to do, and we fully support the World Health Organization’s target to fully vaccinate 70% of the world’s population. We have committed over £1.6 billion of UK aid to address the impacts of Covid-19, including £129 million to support the global development, manufacture and delivery of Covid-19 vaccines. These include projects such as in Ethiopia, where the UK leads the partner co-ordination group, and in Nigeria, where our health programme is supporting vaccine delivery in five of the poorest states. I agree with the noble Lord that there is much more to do, but we are very focused on reaching the most vulnerable and are working with the World Health Organization in pursuit of that objective.

My Lords, on 13 December, my noble friend informed your Lordships’ House in answer to a similar Question that 131,000 doses of vaccine had been donated bilaterally to Nepal. That was very gratefully received, but with a population of some 30 million, it barely touched the sides. Can my noble friend say whether there are any further plans to donate bilaterally to Nepal? I declare my interest as on the register.

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend’s work in Nepal, and I am grateful for his briefings on his work there. We delivered 131,000 AstraZeneca vaccines to Nepal in October and since August, overall through the COVAX facility, we have delivered a further 2.2 million donated vaccines to Nepal. COVAX remains in our view the best way to allocate vaccines, but we are also working directly with the Nepalese Government to ensure that we focus some of our support directly on the medical, social and economic consequences of Covid-19. I hope to visit that country soon, and we will be focused on these priorities bilaterally with the Government of Nepal.

My Lords, on 12 May, the White House will co-host the second global Covid-19 summit, a gathering intended to build momentum for vaccine donations, discuss efforts to end the pandemic and prepare for future health threats. Can the Minister confirm that we will participate in that summit meeting, and if so, can he tell the House what our priorities are for the meeting and whether the Government plan to make any announcements of actions there to address the continuing global vaccine inequity challenge?

My Lords, I can confirm to the noble Lord that we will of course be actively engaged and working with the United States on that very event. In terms of priorities, as I have already said, we are very much focused on the most vulnerable. When we look at the global south there is much work still to be done. Indeed, two weeks ago during our UN presidency of the Security Council, I chaired a meeting of the Security Council specifically on Covid-19 which focused on reaching the most vulnerable, particularly those affected by conflict or humanitarian crises.

With just 15% of those in the lowest-income countries vaccinated and less than 1% having received a booster, the UK committed 100 million doses to COVAX last summer with the target of delivering 30 million by the end of 2021. I have checked on COVAX this afternoon and we have delivered just 29 million. Of the top 10 donor countries to COVAX we have delivered the lowest amount, so I point out to the Minister that we are not at the forefront but are lower than the top 10. Why is that? Why have we not delivered what we have committed to deliver?

My Lords, I have great respect for the noble Lord, but on this point, I must disagree. We have led the way, including on the COVAX facility itself. Had it not been for UK investment of more than £0.5 billion, that facility would not have got off the ground. That is fact. Secondly, we have reached over 52 million vaccines. The noble Lord shakes his head, but the fact is that we have donated. We are living up to our pledge; we have focused on the 100 million doses, which we seek to achieve. I know the noble Lord reads a lot of reports, but perhaps we can share our data and exchange notes on this and address this point directly. As I have illustrated, we are working directly—bilaterally—with countries around the world. Yes, there are certain problems, such as with the AstraZeneca vaccine, because of, for example, shelf life. There may be another vaccine which is perceived more valid because it has a longer shelf life. Supply is not the issue: the real issue at the moment is one of logistics, and we are very much focused on that priority as well.

My Lords, let us turn to that issue. It is absolutely vital. Supply is not the issue, but it is the delivery mechanisms that the Minister addressed in the first place. At a time when we need universal health coverage in Africa—the means to deliver vaccine—this Government are cutting funding to that facility. When will the Government get their priorities right?

My Lords, this is a serious matter that requires a serious response. The fact is that the Government have got their priorities right. It was entirely appropriate, when it came to vaccine delivery and vaccinations, that we ensured that our own population was prioritised, and we delivered on that. We have led the world on manufacturing. The noble Lord knows that it was our association with India—a country mentioned in the previous Question—that led to the upscaling of manufacturing when it came to the vaccines, when the world needed it most. Yes, logistics is an issue: the noble Lord and I have talked about this. That is why we are currently working in Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Uganda and Nigeria on that very issue of logistics and structures to ensure—whether it is for this variant or the next or for any vaccine—that the structures set up, particularly in the global south, are robust enough to deal with this continuing pandemic.

My Lords, is stockpiling not one of the issues we should address? It seems to me very immoral that wealthier nations stockpile. Amnesty has pointed this out. If we had a proper human rights framework, it could not happen. Should we not do something to ensure that many of the wealthier nations do not stockpile while others are finding it very difficult to get adequate amounts of vaccines? We need to find solutions as a matter of urgency.

My Lords, the noble Baroness refers to the earlier stages of the vaccines. As vaccines were being developed, undoubtedly those countries that were first in production and manufacturing held vaccines in reserve, but the whole essence of the accelerator within the COVAX scheme was to ensure that the most vulnerable were provided with supplies of vaccines. As I said in response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, the issue within countries has been one of logistics. There have, sadly, been examples where the supply has reached a port of a given country, but where the challenge has been the duration of the shelf life of the vaccine and the logistics within country. That is where we are currently focused, particularly when it comes to second doses and booster vaccines in the global south.

My Lords, the BMJ published an article on 22 March that stated that 2.8 billion people in the world remain totally unvaccinated. In view of that, would the Minister take on board the need to reinstate the overseas aid budget to 0.7% of GNI to help address that same inequity?

My Lords, I hear what the noble Baroness says; as I said, I firmly believe in the 0.7%. However, equitable access to vaccines is not an issue of money. It is one foremost of logistics, which I have pointed to. There have also been issues of vaccine hesitancy in areas such as the Caribbean and Africa. In that regard, we talked in the previous Question about the important role of civil society at the heart of finding solutions. That is exactly what civil society has helped to do in partnership with the British Government and others, to ensure that vaccine hesitancy is addressed. In this case, I pay particular tribute to faith leaders, especially in Africa and the Caribbean, who have helped to address getting over that initial hurdle of taking the vaccine in the first place.