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Respiratory Syncytial Virus

Volume 826: debated on Thursday 19 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to introduce PCR testing and an annual vaccination programme for young infants, children and older adults in relation to seasonal Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).

PCRs test are already in use to diagnose RSV and monitor its prevalence. Current RSV immunisation is targeted at infants at high risk of severe complications. New immunisation products, including vaccines, have been developed and are being reviewed by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, JCVI, which will potentially provide advice later this year. His Majesty’s Government will decide on future vaccination programmes once they have received that advice.

My Lords, as the Minister will know, RSV-related hospitalisations in the under-fives cost £48.2 million in the UK annually. At a time when the NHS is facing increasing pressures, both financially and through capacity, will the Minister clarify how the Government plan to reduce the infant burden associated with it to ensure that the NHS does not experience the same situation next season? If there are plans, will they publish them? If there are no plans, why not?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I am pleased to say that there are promising new vaccinations. The current vaccination unfortunately requires monthly injections, which is why it is not very effective, and costs £2,000, so it is not an effective way ahead. A new injection, nirsevimab, has just been licensed which is showing in tests to be 75% to 80% effective and immunises people for six months, so we are hopeful that it is the way ahead. The JCVI is currently conducting a study on it, and we are hoping its recommendations will suggest a good way forward.

My Lords, two days ago Moderna from the United States announced that it had used messenger RNA technology to develop a vaccine for RSV. The report was of a late-stage trial and the vaccine has an efficacy of 84% for adults. There are similar results from both GSK and Pfizer, with an efficacy of 66%, but we already have antibody prevention treatment developed by AstraZeneca and Sanofi for prevention of RSV in children and young infants. That has been approved by the European Medicines Agency, and the Moderna vaccine is seeking FDA approval. Why does none of these have market authorisation in the United Kingdom?

I can report best on nirsevimab, which has just been licensed, is shown to be 75% to 80% effective in the trials and has the approach of immunising people for six months. I am aware of Pfizer developing a maternal vaccination for whooping cough, which will give the baby immunisation through the mother. The House will also be aware of the recent announcement we made with Moderna on the investment in new R&D facilities here, so that we are at the forefront. I hope the noble Lord can see that we are looking at all these new innovations and will roll them out.

My Lords, have we not learned some lessons, from Covid and long Covid, of the need for children, babies and all of us to build our immune systems? Long Covid is proving that we have a real problem. I caught this virus from my granddaughter, a baby. I am told that the more she catches these wretched things now, the healthier she will be and the better she will be at putting off some serious diseases later in life. While accepting that high-risk babies obviously need particular regard, is it not right that we should be mindful of continually looking for a vaccine every time a new virus is discovered?

My noble friend is correct in that, for the vast majority of people—infants in this case—it is mild, flu-like symptoms at most. At the same time, it is responsible for 35,000 hospitalisations and 20 to 30 deaths a year, so it is a serious thing that we need to get on top of. We are looking for the best of both worlds. That 90% of two year-olds will have had RSV and so will have that natural protection is a good thing. But in the most serious cases—the risk groups are those with congenital lung or heart disease or spinal muscular problems—these new treatments really will help and are very important.

My Lords, the innovative vaccines and treatments mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, all require UK clinical trials. The number of clinical trials initiated in the UK declined by 4% between 2017 and 2021. What are the Government doing to reverse this decline so as to bring valuable industry money back into the NHS and cutting-edge treatments, such as RSV vaccines and treatments, to patients?

The noble Baroness is correct. In fact, my maiden speech was in a debate about how we can bring life sciences to bear more. The point about NHS clinical trials and the fact that we are not using this massive potential asset was very much a feature of that. It is key to the work we are doing—I had a meeting on it just this week—so I agree with the noble Baroness and hope we will see improvements in this space.

My Lords, we know that older adults are at greater risk of serious complications from RSV infections in children, because our immune systems weaken as we get older, which can lead to exacerbations of underlying lung and cardiac disease. What action is being taken to address the serious underestimation of older adult RSV infections and to improve testing, reporting and treatment for this key group?

I thank the noble Baroness. The key risk groups in the elderly as well are, as I mentioned earlier, those with congenital lung or heart disease or spinal muscular atrophy. The problem is that the current vaccination needs monthly immunisation to be effective, and I think most people will agree that it can be used in only the most severe cases because it is not a very practical way forward and is very expensive. That is why I am really excited by the new treatments, particularly nirsevimab, which is 75% to 80% effective, versus palivizumab, which is more around 50%. I think we have a good way forward.

My Lords, has the Department of Health done any assessment of how many children may have missed their routine vaccinations during the pandemic lockdown? Is the department doing anything to follow up with these children? If so, can the Minister say what?

I know that this, like all those areas that were unfortunately missed out during the pandemic, is something the department is working on. There are catch-up activities. I have seen it personally with my four year-old, who of course was two and three during this time. I will happily provide the detail in writing.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is wise for the UK to maintain a good level of baseline PCR testing so that we can ramp it up when confronted with novel viruses such as Covid-19? In that respect, does he agree that it is important to consider this resiliency benefit when looking at the business case for PCR testing for other viruses, such as RSV?

Yes. I should probably declare an interest, having set up a PCR business—in the private sector, I might add. I know at first hand from that how versatile these PCR machines are. They can be used to diagnose all these sorts of treatments, so we absolutely have to make sure we keep that strategic capacity alive.

My Lords, we were obviously ill prepared for the Covid outbreak. How prepared does the Minister think we are now for track and trace and delivery of PCR tests? What resources do we have in place to cover that?

We have the PCR capacity in place. Clearly, as responsible Ministers spending-wise, we are ramping some of that down because we do not need the sort of capacity we had before. From personal knowledge, I can promise that there are a lot of these PCR machines knocking around, so that capacity really is there. There was a Question a few days ago about how prepared we are for the next epidemic. Clearly, we will get the findings of the Covid inquiry, but the whole purpose of setting up the UKHSA was to make sure we have the proper preparations around for next time.