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Respiratory Syncytial Virus

Volume 832: debated on Tuesday 25 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, following advice issued by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on 7 June, whether they are planning to undertake an immunisation programme against respiratory syncytial virus before winter; and if not, what are the barriers to doing so.

My Lords, officials are currently developing policy options based on Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, or JCVI, advice regarding an expanded RSV vaccination programme for infants and older children. While officials are working at speed, challenges such as procurement negotiations, system readiness and delivery capacity mean that a universal programme in time for this winter is not possible. The department is working with partners to mitigate those challenges and to support implementation as soon as possible.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, albeit a little disappointing. When will that policy position on the introduction of the RSV immunisation programme be submitted to Ministers? When will the business case, including funding priorities, for the introduction of such an RSV immunisation programme be developed and put to the Treasury? Does the Department of Health plan to accept the joint industry offer to work with manufacturers to overcome barriers to rapid implementation?

I thank the noble Baroness. The issue is that the current jab, palivizumab, is very expensive and lasts for only one month at a time, so it is logistically quite difficult. Promisingly, a new jab, nirsevimab, has just been agreed by the JCVI. It offers six months’ protection, is more effective and is lower in cost, so that is the one we are looking to roll out to more people. At the same time, there is a promising Pfizer jab which can be given to mothers. There are good new vaccines coming along; the issue is whether they are going to be licensed in time for us to be able to use them this winter.

When immunisation is rolled out, will there be a public information programme to ensure a high level of uptake among people who are eligible for it? In the meantime, in the absence of a test, what advice is being given to people who believe they may have RSV? Should they go to their local pharmacist or to their GP?

It depends on the type of jab. For instance, the maternal jab can be given to the mother as part of her prenatal check-ups. Either way, if it is for her or for the baby, there will be an education campaign. The other at-risk group is, as I am sure the noble Baroness knows, the over-75s. We are looking at a targeted programme for them as well, which they can go to their GP to find out about.

Further to the noble Baroness’s question about public information, we found previously when rolling out vaccines, not just for this but for Covid, that there were certain communities which were difficult to reach or to persuade to take up the vaccine. As an extension to the question from the noble Baroness, what more is being done to encourage people in those communities who are reluctant to be vaccinated to come forward, or to go to meet them in their communities and take the vaccine to them?

We had this question on MMR just the other day. Some groups are much harder to reach than others. Very young children are the prime at-risk group. There, it is much easier because, naturally, they are seen by their GP and medical staff either prenatally, if it is maternal, or post in terms of the baby check-ups. The group that we are talking more about here is post 75 year-olds, and there those education programmes will be put in place.

My Lords, the JCVI advice endorses the vaccine programme for 75 year-olds and for ages above, but we know that evidence shows that there is serious underestimation of RSV infections among older adults and an urgent need to improve testing and treatment of, in particular, those with congenital lung or heart disease or spinal muscular atrophy. What steps are the Government taking to raise awareness among these key groups and to develop information and monitoring systems that identify those most at risk?

This is where nirsevimab is very promising, in that it gives six months’ protection. The problem with the previous jab is that it needed monthly injections and was only 50% effective. We are talking about 70%-plus effective now, which makes it more practical to have that sort of rollout. To date, we have been looking at the very targeted group of 75 year-olds only, particularly as each course costs £2,000 and has to be given monthly over the winter months. Now that we are opening up to this injection, which is much cheaper and lasts for six months, we can look at a broader range, and then there is a much more general education programme to go with it.

My Lords, will the Minister comment more generally on vaccine manufacturing in the UK, which comes into play here? During Covid, we learned that having our own vaccine manufacturing capacity was important. Is that the Government’s position going forward?

The noble Lord is correct. I have two good examples of that, BioNTech and Moderna, where as part of commercial arrangements for us to buy large amounts of Covid vaccines from them they are making investments in UK plants. It will not always be practical, but those examples are billion pound-plus investments which I think we all agree are welcome news.

My Lords, following the previous Question, it is great to have a Minister who knows what he is talking about. Does he agree that it is important that we have the same kind of policies in all parts of the United Kingdom in relation to vaccination and immunisation? What discussions is he having with his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

First, I thank noble Lord. That is the nicest thing anybody has ever said to me; I think I want to go on holiday at this point. This is a devolved matter, but it is something on which we are working very closely with the devolved Administrations. I must admit, as we discussed yesterday, that there is concern about the Northern Ireland Administration. Obviously, the Executive and Assembly not meeting at the moment makes some areas more difficult. We had examples of that yesterday, and we are about to have one in a minute when we talk about the fortification of bread. However, where we can, we are working closely with our colleagues.

My Lords, in his initial response to me, the Minister indicated that the policy papers were being drawn up. What policy options are being considered?

The hope is that there will be two effective and cost-effective vaccines, nirsevimab and the Pfizer maternal jab. Those are much more effective and give longer periods of protection than the current monthly jab—they give six months’ protection. They are open to a mass campaign, particularly for young children, who are the most at-risk group. That allows us to have a negotiation with both parties with some healthy competitive tension so that we can get the best price, because we know that either one will do the job quite well. Where we can reach a successfully negotiated outcome, we hope that will set us up either to do either a year-round programme, if it really is very cost effective, or, if it is still quite expensive, to focus on the winter months, because that is the time when young children are most at risk if they have just been born. Those negotiations are live, and I will be happy to update the House as we learn more.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Minister’s detailed knowledge of this subject. Testing it even further, if I may, can I ask him whether His Majesty’s Government have made any assessment of the usefulness of glycolipid research in countering not only RSV but other viral illnesses, including influenza and Covid-19?

I fear I might have been taken to the limit of my knowledge. I would like to think I know when to stop and to offer to follow up in writing.