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Overseas Development Aid: Covid-19 Vaccination

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 21 January 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that access to Covid-19 vaccination is available as part of their overseas development aid work to vulnerable people in less economically developed countries.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has committed £548 million to the COVAX Advance Market Commitment, the AMC, which is the international initiative to support global equitable access to vaccines. Through match funding the commitment was leveraged to encourage other donors to commit $1 billion in 2020. The commitment will support access to Covid-19 vaccines for up to 92 developing countries by contributing to the supply of 1 billion doses, with deliveries set to begin in the first quarter of 2021.

My Lords, while the United Kingdom has been a strong supporter of the COVAX Facility, the director-general of the WHO has raised fresh concerns about developing countries being left behind. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider approaches to supplement COVAX using our own economic development institutions? For example, could we make UK export finance easily available to countries importing the Oxford vaccine, and could we encourage the CDC to urgently support local vaccine supply chains?

My noble friend makes two very practical points, especially that on the CDC. I will certainly look at what we can do. To be absolutely clear, we remain committed to the COVAX Facility. We want to provide clarity to all that we will continue to support that facility, which we believe has the infrastructure to ensure the best, most equitable and fastest distribution to the most vulnerable around the world. However, my noble friend makes some practical points and I will certainly explore those further.

Does the Minister agree that, while priority must be given to vaccinating as many people in the United Kingdom as possible, it is also vital to help protect less developed countries, which may develop other strains of Covid-19 as we have already witnessed? Can the Minister assure the House that the UK Government will not seek any payment for vaccinations or equipment from those countries? Will the Government support them to develop and deploy the skills and expertise that have been developed by our own dedicated scientists and doctors in this country?

I assure the noble Baroness that, as vaccine distribution picks up pace and other vaccines come online, we remain committed to the COVAX Facility. The noble Baroness puts forward some practical points about British expertise and how this can be further leveraged in terms of support. Regarding specific charges that may be levied, let me assure her that the whole basis of the AMC within the COVAX Facility is to ensure that the most vulnerable are not prohibited from or limited in their access to the vaccine because of a lack of money.

My Lords, last week Dr Anthony Fauci from the US National Institutes of Health endorsed the WHO’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool, the C-TAP. This is a key mechanism to support efforts to scale up the manufacture of vaccines for all. We are currently not supporting it. Considering the urgent need to respond to new variants of the virus, will the UK Government follow Dr Fauci’s lead?

My Lords, I understand from reports coming from the United States that Dr Fauci’s expertise will be fully leveraged within the World Health Organization, as he will be leading the United States delegation now that the US has rejoined the World Health Organization, which we welcome. As details of the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool emerge from the WHO, our Government are committed to assessing how it could add value to existing innovation and access infrastructure such as the Medicines Patent Pool, which we helped to set up 10 years ago. We are looking at it very carefully. We will work closely with the United States and, importantly, the World Health Organization in this respect.

My Lords, we must welcome warmly the exceptional moral leadership in this remarkable donation to the COVAX programme, which I think is the largest of any country. However, in order to make the money work, and to follow up what the British ambassador, Julian Braithwaite, said at the WHO, we need a global vaccination campaign if we are to overcome this global pandemic. There are three particular obstructions to overcome. One relates to the use of surplus supplies of vaccine; for example, Canada has ordered more than five times what it needs for its population. The second is misinformation, mythical dangers or false stories being deliberately spread about the vaccines. Thirdly, in many parts of the countries that will need the vaccine, there are immense logistical difficulties in distributing it. To make the most of the financial leadership we have set and given our expertise, experience and success in the rollout in this country, what will the Government do to validate that gift by overcoming these three challenges?

My Lords, the most reverend Primate makes some very pertinent and important points. On the issue of countries which have oversubscribed, some countries have already announced plans for that. We are not in that position, but others have announced how they will look at distribution. We would implore them to consider that the most equitable way to support that distribution is through the COVAX Facility and the AMC, for the very reasons that have been put forward; namely, that they have the most effective infrastructure and networks to allow for equitable and fast distribution of the vaccine as it is rolled out.

I take fully the most reverend Primate’s point on misinformation. At a time when people are concerned and worried, it is highly regrettable that some in the world are putting out misinformation on vaccines which have already gone through all stages of testing and have been approved. We must come together to tackle that and provide proper information.

The most reverend Primate’s point on logistics was well made. As vaccine distribution continues, we will work through our networks within the FCDO and the UN to further strengthen NGOs; for example, with training and by ensuring that front-line healthcare workers in the field in developing parts of the world are vaccinated first.

I thank my noble friend for the assurances he has given the House about his department. Will he ensure that every effort is made to focus medical help to Africa on preventive vaccines, but not only against Covid-19? Can use be made of the Virtual Doctors organisation, which can assist in setting up a preventive system in African countries?

My Lords, I can give my noble friend that assurance. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is currently on a visit to Africa, where issues concerning Covid-19 and the vaccine will be addressed directly, as they will be by the Minister for Africa. In her latter point, my noble friend also makes a practical suggestion about distribution. As more vaccines become readily available and distribution evolves, we will take this forward as part of our planning and share it with other partners as well.

My Lords, the great news from Washington this morning is that the US is joining the COVAX facility. I hope this will lead to many more opportunities. Last Friday, I met representatives of the Africa CDC who have more recent experience and expertise in conducting mass public vaccination programmes than do we in the UK. What discussions has the Minister’s department had with organisations in the global south, so that we can learn from them? They also highlighted the secondary economic impacts through healthcare and gender inequality. What preparations is the FCDO making to prevent there being a development mountain to climb after the pandemic subsides?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second question, he will appreciate that at the Gavi summit we saw a real commitment by the world community, led by the United Kingdom, not just to deal with the global pandemic but to ensure that the other challenges we face—particularly on vaccine distribution, including against polio and cholera—are not forgotten. These remain live challenges in many parts of the world. That underlines our commitment to ensuring that such challenges remain very much on the priority radar. Covid-19 vaccines and their distribution are our primary focus. I agree that we should be looking at the experience of all our partners. There are NGOs working throughout Africa that have real experience of dealing with the Ebola outbreak. We should learn from that. I have spoken to leading scientists in Pakistan who are still dealing with polio, both there and in Afghanistan. They were able to deploy quickly certain measures to deal with Covid-19 when it happened. This is a learning curve, and we must work together to ensure optimum outcomes not just for one country, but for us all.

The UK is rightly proud of the leadership of many Governments over many years in Gavi. It was alarming to hear on the “Today” programme yesterday that only 25 vaccine injections had been delivered into arms so far in developing countries. Can the Minister reassure the House that the UK’s extra orders for the Pfizer and AZ vaccines have not caused any delays in the urgent rollout of the Gavi orders?

I, too, heard that announcement. As Minister for South Asia, I know that there are large parts of India, for example, where the population is highly vulnerable and suffers extreme poverty. The Indian authorities are part of the rollout. I have also heard that the vaccine is now being delivered to Bangladesh. The Government are stressing to all our partners that support for the COVAX facility, particularly the AMC, is a key part of ensuring equitable distribution for all.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on their vaccination record. I am about to have mine, so I thank them. The Big Issue works with people on the streets all over the world—and here I declare an interest. Vaccinating street dwellers against Covid is very important, but they also need nutrition and support beyond that. Can the Minister’s department indicate whether anything might be added to the Covid vaccine that could keep these people healthy?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, helping people not just in the United Kingdom but across the world. I listened carefully to what the noble Lord said and look forward to practical suggestions from him for how we can further strengthen our work in this area. I can assure him that we are looking particularly at famine and nutrition in fragile states. This is very much part of the development elements with which the FCDO is engaged.

My Lords, given the devastating impact of Covid-19 on low and middle-income countries, the need and the demand for overseas development assistance has never been greater. This is one of many reasons why the cut to the 0.7% is so regrettable. Can the Minister reassure me that spending on health infrastructure and on, for example, data systems, cold chain storage and the training of healthcare workers will be protected from the aid cuts? It is crucial in the fight against this and future pandemics around the world.

My Lords, answering my noble friend presents me with a bit of a challenge because, not so long ago, she was leading on this area, but I hope I can provide her with practical information in every sense. I look forward to working with her further on the prioritisations within ODA. My noble friend knows better than most the challenges that this has presented. I can assure her that global health remains a top priority for the United Kingdom. We are focused on overcoming Covid-19, as well as on supporting more resilient and healthier populations in developing countries. I currently have wider responsibilities within the FCDO. We are looking specifically at country plans to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected and that other issues such as those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, on famine, do not present additional problems as we challenge the pandemic. We will ensure that the principles close to my noble friend’s heart continue to guide our work within the FCDO.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Private Notice Question has elapsed. I apologise to noble Lords whom it has not been possible to call.