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Malaria Vaccine

Volume 808: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to reports on the development of a vaccine for malaria, what plans they have to continue to meet their commitment to spend £500 million a year on addressing that disease.

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord and your Lordships’ House that fighting malaria remains a priority for this Government. There are very encouraging reports, and I congratulate all scientists in the UK who are working towards the creation of a malaria vaccine, which would be a game-changer in our vital work to protect the world’s most vulnerable people. While my department does not directly fund malaria vaccine development, our investments in multilateral organisations, including the WHO, UNITAID and Gavi, have recently contributed to a malaria vaccine candidate being piloted in three African countries.

In relation to the spending review, as communicated only last week, we are working through our priorities and will be able to provide more information in the new year. That said, we are very much concerned that the knock-on effect of the Covid-19 pandemic poses additional threats to progress on malaria and other causes of preventable death. We cannot stand by and let that happen.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply; I am sure that he agrees with me that the impact of malaria, which kills hundreds of millions of people a year, is probably even worse than the Covid epidemic. Can the Minister confirm that the proposed reduction in the overseas aid budget will not impact the funding of this vital vaccine, which will do so much to enhance the reputation of the United Kingdom overseas?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that I agree with him on the important work being done to fight malaria. I have been involved in some of the direct campaigns, and we have seen some real benefits. In relation to the ODA reduction, as I said during the repeat of the Statement in your Lordships’ House, there will of course be reductions across the budgets. We are currently working through that exercise, and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is overseeing that programme directly. At this point, as I have said previously in your Lordships’ House, I cannot give the specific commitment that the noble Lord desires, but we hope to have more details of our planned priorities and spend, including important projects that we will be protecting, in the new year.

My Lords, this is very good news. My question to the Minister is on the cost of a vaccine. The Government have signed up to COVAX to allow for the procurement of vaccines at a negotiated price from vaccine manufacturers on behalf of low and middle-income countries. Will this apply to the malaria vaccine we have been discussing, and will costs to the countries involved—mainly in sub-Saharan Africa—be kept as low as possible?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord—the leadership that the United Kingdom has shown on equitable access in relation to the Covid-19 vaccine certainly underlines our commitment to ensuring that the most vulnerable receive the vaccines required. On the malaria vaccine, we are working closely through multilateral organisations that fund the continued research into and testing of those vaccines. I agree with the noble Lord that, as these vaccines come online, it is important that they are game-changers on the ground, particularly in the most vulnerable parts of the world. We should ensure the lowest cost for and equitable access to those vaccines.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his opening Answer. Whenever there are cuts in public expenditure, the first things to suffer are projects connected with research and training. I read very carefully the letter circulated yesterday by the Foreign Secretary, where he stated his hopes to provide £10 billion, which takes into account funds to fight coronavirus, Ebola and malaria. Can the Minister indicate what proportion of funds would be available for tackling malaria and ensuring that the valuable work that has already been done is not lost? What is the likely impact of cuts on projects related to malaria in future years?

My Lords, I cannot provide the noble Lord with specific numbers at this time, as I said earlier. However, we should not only bank but look to strengthen the successes we have seen in fighting malaria. We have provided extensive support, particularly through multilateral organisations, and there are programmes that work well, but some perhaps not as well as was intended. In the ODA scoping exercise, we want to ensure that we get the maximum return from the important steps forward and progress made in relation to malaria so that we can continue to provide the most vulnerable in the world with the support that they need—particularly because, as the noble Lord knows, those impacted by malaria are primarily in the developing world and are often mothers, pregnant women and young children.

My Lords, I am delighted to hear of Her Majesty’s Government’s ongoing commitment in this area. If or—let us hope—when this breakthrough comes, can my noble friend assure me, as best he can, that our commitment will even include delivering the vaccine to make sure that it gets to all those countries? Will we work with other European countries to ensure that it goes to those sub-Saharan countries?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to raise the issue of distribution—I must admit that, with the current pandemic, I have been on a journey in relation to learning about the distribution of vaccines. I have also been heartened to hear that some of the areas I cover, such as Pakistan, have been able to take what they have learned from polio eradication and vaccine distribution and apply that to the Covid-19 challenge. It is that kind of positive engagement and learning that we need to ensure that, in the hardest parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, where it is difficult to reach the most vulnerable, we can apply what we have learned and work with key partners to deliver that vaccine, as my noble friend said.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his answers, but I am concerned that he cannot give a specific commitment that the cut in development aid funding will not affect the development of this vaccine. Does the Minister accept that now is not the time to slacken our efforts in the search for a malaria vaccine? We have heard of hopeful improvements before, but history has shown that complacency and slacking off will lead to resurgence. Does the Minister also accept that it has taken us more than four decades to recover the ground lost since the 1970s, when anti-malaria funding dried up, and that we must not allow that to happen again?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate raises an important element and I share her concern about ensuring that we can sustain the wins that have been gained in fighting malaria. As I said in an earlier answer, one primary area where we have seen success is in our work through multilateral organisations. I am sure that the right reverend Prelate will have seen our recent support for the World Health Organization, for example, and the strength, political capital and money that we have put behind the COVAX Facility. Only this morning, I was talking to a Caribbean Foreign Minister about ensuring equitable development of the vaccine—we of course support that, but we also support equitable access and distribution, which will remain priorities. I have been very open about not being able to give specific figures for our support for fighting malaria because we are still going through that process at the FCDO, but we do provide support through various funds that will continue to support the important development of the vaccine, I am sure.

My Lords, this is a success story. The UK is the second largest international donor to the fight against malaria: 7.6 million lives have been saved, and 1.5 billion cases prevented. The noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, in her recent letter to Boris Johnson, emphasised that cutting the UK aid budget from 0.7%,

“will diminish our power to influence other nations to do what’s right.”

In 2021 we have the UK-hosted G7, and CHOGM in Rwanda—an opportunity for this country to give a clear lead. Will the Minister at least say that we will continue to give such a lead, and to encourage other countries to step up in the fight against malaria?

My Lords, when the noble Lord started, calling this a success story and talking about facts and figures, I thought he had stolen a bit of my brief. I certainly welcome his strong support and recognition. Equally, he is right to challenge the Government to ensure that, with the major conferences and other events happening next year, we continue to show leadership, through our chairing of the G7, through CHOGM—as Commonwealth Minister, that is very much at the top of my mind—and, of course, as we lead into COP 26. I assure the noble Lord that, although there is a reduction in the financial spend, we should, and will, continue to leverage all our diplomatic capability to ensure that these important priorities are understood, not just by our development partners but by other member states, in their support for various campaigns around the world. As the noble Lord knows, we remain among the most generous of G7 donors in such development support and leadership.

My Lords, I declare my interest as an officer of the APPG for Africa and a member of the APPG on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases. I commend to the House the work of Jeremy Lefroy and his leadership in persisting with these causes. I welcome the progress that the Oxford team is making in leading on the vaccine, and in proposing to test nearly 5,000 children in Africa. Every two minutes a child dies of malaria in Africa. Is the Minister aware of the concerns expressed publicly by some African leaders who have said that they will co-operate fully on the basis of there being the highest standards of compliance and consent, to safeguard any such trials? I thank the Minister for his assurance to the House. Will he continue to assure our partners across Africa, to address any scepticism?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, it is important that, although we have taken difficult decisions on the ODA budget, we continue to leverage to the utmost our diplomatic efforts to ensure that the priorities remain, through our multilateral partners and other member states, and to provide the level of reassurance that she described in Africa, and also compliance within countries. I have been proud of the leadership we have shown, particularly in supporting multilateral funds such as the Global Fund, which, as she knows, has helped to fight AIDS, TB and malaria, particularly in Africa. We are proud of that relationship. As we look at revising our ODA spend, I assure the noble Baroness that, when we face challenges on finance, we will look to bridge those gaps through extensive diplomatic engagement and leadership in that area.