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Respiratory Syncytial Virus Immunisation

Volume 829: debated on Tuesday 28 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the NHS and vaccine manufacturers regarding expanding the Respiratory Syncytial Virus immunisation programme for winter 2023/24, and the potential for making a universal offer of that vaccine.

My Lords, the Joint Committee on Immunisation and Vaccination has advised that the existing targeted RSV immunisation offer should move to a more effective and longer-lasting monoclonal antibody. The Government are in conversation with the manufacturer and the NHS to support this change in time for the 2023-24 winter season. The JCVI is actively reviewing the evidence around other available products and the potential for universal RSV offers as soon as practicable.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. He will be aware that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has recently recognised the importance of a universal immunisation programme to help protect all infants from RSV. There is an issue around the budget, so will the Minister clarify for your Lordships’ House what discussions he and his colleagues have had with the Chancellor about the budget for a universal RSV immunisation programme for the 2023-24 winter programme?

My Lords, I have not discussed the universal RSV immunisation programme for 2023-24 with the Chancellor. However, the independent expert committee, the JCVI, provides the Government with advice on all immunisation programmes, including RSV. For the current year, this advice is to improve the existing targeted programme for children at high risk. Once the JCVI has concluded its robust review of evidence for an expanded or universal programme, I will support the implementation of any changes advised as soon as practicable. This would include talking to the Chancellor to seek budgetary support for a potential programme. I offer the noble Baroness a meeting with the relevant officials following this Question to discuss this important matter further, if that would be helpful.

My Lords, as my noble friend will be aware, the RSV vaccine was mostly given to pre-term and premature babies. As he said, a new vaccine is available that will last longer than the previous one. Therefore, can my noble friend the Minister say exactly how the Government will improve the uptake across all immunisation programmes and age groups?

The Government are committed to child health. After clean water, vaccination is the most effective public health intervention for saving lives and promoting good health. The Government work with the NHS and the UK Health Security Agency to support accurate and up-to-date information on the benefits of vaccines to be available to parents, carers and patients. The NHS has recently concluded a call and recall campaign, where parents, carers and anyone aged one to six who has missed their measles, mumps and rubella vaccine for any reason were invited to their GP to catch up with vaccinations.

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for his positive and constructive response to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, I press him further on talks he might have with the Treasury and whether he has seen the data that suggests that up to 30,000 paediatric hospital admissions are attributable to RSV each year, while nearly 500,000 GP visits cost the NHS almost £16 million annually and there could be a saving of £80 million to the wider UK economy each year if there were a universal immunisation programme. Does the Treasury not need to hear those kinds of figures?

I am grateful to the noble Lord, whose figures are entirely correct. There are currently no specific treatments for RSV once contracted, and management of infection is purely supportive. Cancellation of surgery such as that for heart disorders, a common consequence of paediatric intensive care pressures from RSV, is a very big issue for the NHS because it adds pressure during the winter. The noble Lord is exactly right to highlight that, and we are doing all we can to relieve this. As I said to the noble Baroness, we hope to have some good news later in the year.

My Lords, I welcome the £277 million announced today by the Government for innovative life sciences manufacturing, which includes vaccines. Can the Minister update us on the implementation of other steps in the life sciences vision, including more rapid uptake of innovative therapeutics in the NHS?

My noble friend is clearly up to date. She is absolutely right that the NHS constantly looks for innovations. For RSV, the offer in place for 2023-24 is for the specialised commissioning for NHS purchases of monoclonal antibodies directly from the manufacturers. The NHS delegates price and delivery with the manufacturers. For national immunisation programmes, the UK Health Security Agency procures immunisation products centrally, but I reassure the House that the NHS does all it can to make sure that it is aware of new developments to incorporate in the vaccination programmes.

My Lords, in the last week, the Minister may have seen financial reports about the challenges facing some vaccine manufacturers, now that the Covid demand is much reduced. What do the Government intend to do to ensure that we have capacity in the UK to develop new vaccines at scale in response to this and any other future challenge?

There are ongoing conversations with the manufacturers of various antibodies and vaccines for the year 2023-24. I am not familiar with the companies that the noble Baroness referred to, but I am very happy to look into them.

My Lords, maximising new vaccinations for RSV for babies and older people in the next winter season is vital, given that it will be just one of the many similar respiratory and related illnesses facing patients and the health service during this winter and the next. Can the Minister reassure the House that the Government are making full use of the public information budget to raise awareness of RSV, Covid, flu and strep A, in particular the differences between them and the steps that people do and do not need to take in each case?

The noble Baroness raises a very good point. She is absolutely right that the Government and the NHS have to use all media channels to make sure that people are aware of what is available. We have some new products coming through, one example of which is nirsevimab, which provides longer-term protection than its recently used predecessor of five months compared to one month. We try to communicate these, so that people do not have to go so regularly for immunisation. We hope that that one immunisation can cope with the winter season.

My Lords, can the Minister clarify that no vaccine is currently available for RSV and that the only available preventive measure for the disease is, as he mentioned, monoclonal antibodies, particularly for children? Does he agree that the disadvantages include that it requires multiple injections, and therefore will be administered only to higher-risk children at this stage, and that we will have to wait until a vaccine is developed before we can move the programme to all children?

The noble Lord is exactly right. Unfortunately, I cannot report to the House that we have a new vaccine, but my understanding is that they are working on it. As I said in my previous answer, nirsevimab lasts five times longer, so you do not have to have those injections as regularly—but I am afraid that you do still need to have them.