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Vaccine Patents Waiver

Volume 818: debated on Monday 24 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to support a vaccine patents waiver at the World Trade Organisation.

My Lords, the waiver proposal of the World Trade Organization goes beyond patents and vaccines, encompassing most intellectual property on all Covid 19-related products and technologies, with no geographical or duration limits. While HM Government remain open to initiatives that help with vaccine production and distribution, there is no evidence that waiving intellectual property protections would advance these objectives. We must focus on actions that will make a real difference, including delivering and administering vaccines globally.

I am grateful to the Minister for that, but he will understand that my Question is in the context of a previous prime ministerial promise and an obvious logical need to vaccinate the planet. The UK is paying the highest recorded price for the Pfizer vaccine. What work are Her Majesty’s Government doing to encourage Pfizer to share its necessary technology—not just the recipe—with the 100 potential mRNA manufacturers in Africa, Asia and Latin America identified by Médecins Sans Frontières and Human Rights Watch? They could be producing these vaccines now.

My Lords, we are still learning about coronavirus and about how to respond effectively to its mutations. One thing that we do know is that continued innovation by companies such as Pfizer is required to enable scientists to continue to develop health products and technologies, including vaccines to help tackle the virus.

My Lords, in part because we have failed to achieve a vaccine permit waiver, there will be further variants of Covid, which may well be resistant to our vaccines. The WHO is urging countries across the world not to loosen the controls and protective measures that they have—including, for example, compulsory mask-wearing. Will the Minister immediately, as a matter of urgency, urge his colleagues to reconsider the ending of the controls that we have had over previous weeks?

My Lords, the increase in production of vaccines, which is now widely known, will lessen supply demands, but of urgency is the development of healthcare systems for delivery. In the context of international aid cuts, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to support the development of effective delivery systems?

My Lords, it is absolutely right to say that challenges to vaccine equity lie with supply and manufacturing constraints, pressures on health systems to administer available vaccines, supply chain issues such as export restrictions and tariff barriers, and vaccine confidence. These are the matters that we should be concentrating on.

My Lords, it is the turn of the Liberal Democrats. The noble Lord, Lord Jones of Cheltenham, wishes to speak virtually, and I think this is a convenient point to call him.

My Lords, now that the UK is outside the European Union, do the Government understand that being the champion of a vaccine patents waiver may be the perfect way to win friends and influence people in other countries, but may also, according to the British pharmaceutical industry, have the unintended consequence of reducing vaccine production and research?

My Lords, intellectual property rights and their continued protection are the way to keep innovators innovating, creators creating and investors investing. That is what will lead to more research.

My Lords, ramping up production will take a number of years, particularly if there is no TRIPS waiver. Until then, richer countries sharing their doses with lower-income countries will be critical to ending the pandemic. Will the Minister commit to doing more on transparency here, so that we join other countries in publishing the type and number of doses that we are sharing, along with their sell-by dates?

My noble friend makes a good point. It is interesting that, as reported in the Financial Times last week, Kate O’Brien, the WHO’s head of vaccines, said that the health body saw a

“very positive outlook for supply”

in 2022. But she cautioned that that was predicated on dose-sharing continuing, and manufacturers continuing to honour deals brokered under COVAX. This is the way forward.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, wishes to speak virtually. I think this is a convenient time for me to call him.

My Lords, if no one is safe until everyone is safe, why cannot the 100-plus vaccine producers referred to by my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti worldwide—in Africa, Asia and Latin America—be licensed under a TRIPS waiver to produce the vaccine in dedicated production areas, within approved plants and facilities, totally under the quality control of personnel seconded from advanced nation producers? By that means, we can avoid potential IP waiver problems, preserve quality, and even make profits, if they really are so necessary.

My Lords, we have seen no evidence that intellectual property is a barrier to the production or supply of Covid-19 goods, including vaccines. We will continue to engage constructively in debates of the World Trade Organization on these matters, including the points that the noble Lord makes.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that if the Government’s objective—an admirable one—is that vaccines should be equitably available around the world, it has not been a total success so far? It has fallen a bit short. If he agrees, should not the Government be focusing now on how to find measures that will provide for equitable distribution when the next pandemic comes along, and not leave us still arguing to a deadlock in Geneva?

My Lords, I am really pleased to say that the UK has been a world leader in ensuring that developing countries can access vaccines, through our early support to the COVAX scheme and commitment to donate vaccines. To date, the UK has delivered more than 30 million doses to countries in need, and we will have donated 100 million by June 2022. I am very pleased to say that 80% of those donations will go to COVAX.

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti is right to raise this matter, and I agree with what she said. Less than 10% of the population in the world’s poorest countries are vaccinated; the efforts that have been made so far have failed. The Minister said that the current proposal before the WTO was too broadly drawn. If that is the case, and he does not want to back that which has been supported by more than 100 countries, including South Africa and India, perhaps he would consider proposing his own solution on patent waivers. Most people seem to think that it would help the situation.

My Lords, the UK remains open to all initiatives that will have a demonstrable impact on vaccine production and distribution, and we will continue to engage constructively in discussions at the WTO to that end and bring forward our own proposals as necessary.

My Lords, when I raised the matter of a TRIPS waiver with the Minister during the passage of the Trade Bill on 1 October 2020, when my noble friend Lady Sheehan had an amendment to it, the noble Lord said that it was too soon. Nearly a year later, I pressed the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, who said that the Government remained unconvinced. Six months on, only 10% of Africa is fully vaccinated and, shockingly, 100 million doses had to be declined because they were too close to their expiration date. Without there being a TRIPS waiver, what is the Government’s core estimate of when Africa will be as fully vaccinated as Europe?

My Lords, I am afraid that there is no evidence at all that an IP rights waiver of the kind that the noble Lord suggests would help us to meet his objectives. The reality is that a proposal for a TRIPS waiver would break up the very framework that helped to produce Covid-19 vaccines at an unprecedented pace. That is the key point.

I am very much obliged to the noble Lord. What assessment have the Government made of the establishment in Cape Town by Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines of the first Covid mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub for vaccine production in Africa? It benefits from the fact that Moderna has effectively suspended its patent rights during the pandemic. The European Union, the World Health Organization and numerous countries, prominently France, have funded this project in a Commonwealth country. Have the Government thought about a similar initiative with AstraZeneca, given that 97% of the investment in the AstraZeneca vaccine was from the Government or from philanthropy, not from other investors?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to put that example before the House, and I shall make sure that I have a look at it and see whether we can follow it up.