Skip to main content

TRIPS Agreement: Vaccines

Volume 823: debated on Monday 11 July 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how, and to what extent, the temporary waiver of provisions of the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), agreed at the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference on 17 June, will expand access to current and new vaccines, given that it does not include a waiver of trade secrets.

My Lords, the consensus-based agreement reached at the WTO’s 12th ministerial conference streamlines compulsory licensing processes for developing countries to manufacture and export Covid-19 vaccines while preserving the incentives to innovation that the international IP system provides. We welcome that the agreement does not undermine the existing IP framework, which has been key to the effective response to the pandemic.

My Lords, regrettably, the Minister’s Answer—I do not blame him for this as he was probably following his brief—did not address the issue that, without the inclusion of a waiver of trade secrets, essential access to critical manufacturing know-how and clinical data, and therefore to the ability to manufacture new vaccines, is denied. Why is this our Government’s policy, and why did our negotiators, who spent 18 months resisting this waiver completely, try to weaken the text further by requesting the deletion of the reference to the possibility of expanding the agreement in TRIPS on Covid-19 to include therapeutics and diagnostics in six months’ time? Who on earth instructed them to do that?

I disagree. This is a very good agreement, and the Government have seen no evidence that IP rights, including the protection of undisclosed information or trade secrets, are any barrier to accessing treatments for Covid-19. The problem now is that we are seeing supply effectively outstrip demand, with the current level of vaccine production. There is evidence—reports of a South African Covid-19 vaccine plant being at risk of closure because it has no orders, and the Serum Institute of India halving production of AstraZeneca’s vaccine due to no new orders.

My Lords, I hear what my noble friend the Minister says around supply now but, if all the vaccines that the G7 committed to had been donated in 2021, around 600,000 lives would have been saved. I would like to ask about the finances. The UK has delivered some of the vaccines that it committed to, but I understand from the British Medical Journal that the Government have charged donated vaccines to the aid budget at much more than they paid for them, which has meant that there have been further cuts to life-saving UK aid programmes. Why have the Government counted each vaccine as £3.26 of aid spending, despite paying just £2.30 for doses in the first place?

I thank my noble friend for the question. All vaccine dose donations will be reported as official development assistance and be included in the 0.5% total. Expenditure for 2021 has been published in the UK Statistics on International Development, and by the OECD Development Assistance Committee. In 2021, we donated 30.8 million doses of AstraZeneca, which we reported at cost in line with the DAC guidance.

My Lords, what are the Government doing to prepare for when the next global pandemic comes along, to make sure that there is better and more equitable distribution of vaccines to developing countries? If this is such a wonderful agreement, why were we the last people to accept it?

The noble Lord makes a very good point, of course. The best answer to future vaccine development is achieved by preserving the intellectual property system. It is a good, consensus-based agreement that all member states can go along with, and a good agreement for vaccine manufacturers and developing countries.

My Lords, under the existing intellectual property system, as of June this year 72.9% of people in high-income countries have been vaccinated with at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine whereas only 17.94% in low-income countries have been vaccinated. The UN special rapporteur on discrimination and the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights have attributed this directly to the existing TRIPS intellectual property system. What is the moral justification for that?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord is wrong: the problem is not with vaccine production, as there is now an excess number of vaccines being produced; the problem is with the healthcare systems of individual countries that are unable to store, distribute and inject those vaccines, which is why we are working with developing countries to help them with that. We know that this is the case because of the problems we had rolling out the vaccine in this country, which of course has a very advanced healthcare system. I repeat the point: the problem is not with vaccine production, as there are already excess vaccines being produced; the problem is with the healthcare systems in those countries which enable them to be distributed and put into peoples’ arms.

So why was it that the Government cut by nearly 60% their support for countries to have the health systems to distribute the vaccines when they became available? Why was it that when countries needed the vaccines, at the early stage of this, the Government vehemently opposed this move at the WTO? Returning to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, can the Minister be very clear as to whether vaccine support is within or over and above the 0.5% cap? In March, in relation to a donation to Bangladesh, the Government said:

“The cost of this donation has been funded through UK Overseas Development Assistance and will come over and above the ODA spending target of 0.5% of GNI if needed.”

That is not what the Minister just told the House, so which is it?

The position is as I repeated to my noble friend Lady Sugg: all vaccine dose donations will be reported as overseas development assistance and be included within the 0.5%. I think the noble Lord is being very unfair about the UK’s support. We are in fact a leader of international support in response to the pandemic; we have spent more than £2.1 billion since 2020 to address its impacts and that includes up to £829 million to support the global development, manufacture and delivery of vaccines, treatments and tests in lower-income countries.

My Lord, the deal agreed at the WTO conference obviously fell short of what was initially proposed. Even after 18 months, discussions on extending the waiver to treatments and tests have been postponed again by another six months. Surely sharing clinical data and research on vaccine production is in our own self-interest, but a poor substitute would be having a relationship with or speaking to the pharmaceutical industry. Have Her Majesty’s Government had any representations with British pharmaceutical corporations to try to bypass the obstacles that exist?

The UK Government have regular meetings with pharmaceutical companies. Of course we want to see the maximum amount of support offered to lower-income countries. I just outlined the support we are providing, but we agreed at the meeting to a consensus-based decision that does not waive IP rights but streamlines the processes for developing countries using compulsory licensing to produce and export Covid-19 vaccines.

My Lords, I have been listening very carefully to what the noble Lord has said so far; I did not hear him answer the question that the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, asked him, which was about the difference between the price that was paid and the price that was charged for the vaccines. Will he have another go at explaining that difference?

I did answer the question but let me repeat the answer. In 2021, we donated 30.8 million doses of AstraZeneca—

My Lords, this question of intellectual property is going to be really important in future pandemics. It is not absolute. We gave up liberties. People stayed at home and did not go to work. All sorts of sacrifices were made. Why cannot big pharma make its little bit of sacrifice as well?

It is making sacrifices. I agree with the noble Baroness about the sacrifices that have been made, but if we want big pharma and the private sector to invest, then we need to preserve the intellectual property regime, because next time it will require billions of pounds of investment, production and research. That is best achieved by preserving the intellectual property regime, but we need to make sure that developing countries have access to these vaccines, which we have done. Many of these countries do not have the facilities, the knowledge, the expertise or the know-how to produce these vaccines.

My Lords, developed countries have been accused of aligning themselves with the narrative of the pharmaceutical industry. Does the Minister accept that the development of these vaccines was not dependent on the innovation of the private sector, but rather came out of public investment and research? Can he explain why these companies were allowed to influence these vital discussions?

The noble Baroness is partly right; of course, there was substantial public research, but we needed the facilities in the private sector to help with the development, production and distribution of those vaccines. It was a partnership. The House is eager to criticise big pharma, but AstraZeneca produced all these vaccines at cost and donated many of them to the third world; it has done a fantastic job, for which we should be grateful.