At the outset of the new year, a cross-party group of MP gathered at a backbench business debate in Westminster Hall to discuss global access to vaccines, and the UK Government’s part in the international response to-date.

14 Jan 2022

“It is time that the Government gives clarity as to how it will play a leading role in ending the pandemic globally. Boris Johnson says he wants us to be ‘Global Britain’. Well, now it is time to step up to the mark,” wrote back bench business debate sponsor MP Wendy Chamberlain ahead of yesterday’s back bench business debate on global vaccine access. 

What is a back bench business debate and why is it important?

Back bench business debates take place in either Westminster Hall or the main chamber and give MPs the chance to raise local or national issues and receive a response from a Government minister. 

In this instance, RESULTS UK worked with the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Vaccinations for All – for whom it provides the secretariat – and APPG member and Liberal Democrat MP Wendy Chamberlain to create the opportunity for concerned MPs to press the Government on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact this has had on routine immunisation and other global health issues.

What happened in this debate?

Cutting right to the heart of the issue in her opening speech, MP Wendy Chamberlain emphasised that the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has “not moved at the pace required.” 

In fact, just 4.2% of people in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated, and between November and December last year the UK, EU and US received more vaccines than Africa received all year. The World Health Organization (WHO) had set a target for every country to vaccinate 40% of its population by the end of 2021, but 92 countries missed this target due to a lack of access. Labour MP John McDonnell repeated the words of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, stating that this situation is a “stain on our global soul.” 

Conservative MP Theo Clarke highlighted the UK’s financing and resourcing of the pandemic to-date through mechanisms such as COVAX – the global mechanism established by WHO and led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance to ensure all countries’ access to COVID vaccines. The UK was a founding member of Gavi and pledged £1.65 billion to Gavi from 2020 – 2025, a commitment that MP Clarke described as “a crucial step in tackling the coronavirus pandemic”. 

COVAX was initially set up to procure vaccines from pharmaceutical companies directly, but as high-income countries bought up the majority of the supply, the mechanism has become dependent on the dose donations from these high-income countries. This has led to shortages and in the end COVAX has been able to provide just 900 million doses approximately, out of the 2 billion doses it had originally planned to distribute last year. It subsequently cut its forecast of deliveries to low-income countries by 25% for 2021 – 2022.

Several MPs made reference to the challenges faced by COVAX and the countries that rely on it, including the fact that donated vaccines are often arriving with short shelf lives, ad hoc, without the necessary supplies for their administration (for example syringes) and without the necessary coordination with recipient countries. This makes planning rollout campaigns very challenging and has led to vaccines going to waste where countries have had insufficient time or delivery support to get them into arms. 

Scottish National Party MP Phillipa Whitford, Vice Chair for the APPG Vaccinations for All, called on the Government to commit to the standards outlined by the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT), the African Centre for Disease Control Prevention (Africa CDC) and COVAX. These include donating doses in large volumes in a predictable manner with adequate advance notice for countries receiving them and accompanied by all the necessary supplies for their administration, including syringes and diluent. Crucially, they must have 10 weeks shelf life as a minimum unless otherwise agreed with the receiving countries.

Intellectual property and the TRIPS waiver

The debate moved on to discuss the systemic barriers to vaccine equity. The UK Government is one of few countries still opposed to the proposal for a temporary waiver on the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs). The Government is opposed on the basis of complexity of vaccine manufacture and their conviction that there is a lack of global manufacturers with the capacity to manufacture them. The Government continues to argue that voluntary licensing – whereby pharmaceutical companies have more autonomy in how and what they share – will achieve a high increase in manufacturing of Covid technology. The TRIPS waiver proposal, initially tabled by the Governments of India and South Africa, is currently supported by 130 countries that argue this temporary measure would increase and diversify global production of COVID-19 health technologies on a massive scale.

During the debate, the TRIPS waiver had cross-party support, with Conservative MP Harriet Baldwin highlighting it as “so important”, acknowledging, “We will not be safe until everyone in the world is vaccinated”. Labour MP John McDonnell said the UK has “disgraced itself” over continuing to block the waiver, arguing that relying on “corporate philanthropy is not going to end this crisis.” The arguments given by the Government regarding concern over the global manufacturing capacity and capability for vaccines were slammed by Labour MP Richard Burgon as “frankly racist”. MSF has identified over 100 firms as having the capacity to scale up manufacturing to begin work as soon as possible, and concerns have been raised previously that the Government’s stance on the waiver and upscaled manufacturing is based on outdated stereotypes that ignores the track record of manufacturers in low and middle income countries of responding to global health crises.

Labour MP Virendra Sharma urged the UK Government to follow the lead of the US Biden administration in supporting the waiver. He highlighted the need for an expedited response to the COVID pandemic given that Covid, and the huge effort required by the world’s response to it, has caused dramatic setbacks in the fight against a number of other killer diseases, including tuberculosis, malaria and HIV.

Pointing to previous public health emergencies, SNP MP Phillipa Whitford, Vice-Chair of the APPG Vaccinations for All said, “Salk didn’t patent his vaccine for polio. Fleming didn’t patent penicillin. Rontgen didn’t patent X-rays. Because they saw them as part of the Global Good.”

How did the government respond?

Conservative MP Vicky Ford opened her response by applauding the speed of the UK’s vaccine rollout and thanking the NHS for their integral role in this. She went on to acknowledge that “too many people across the world remain unvaccinated and unprotected from the virus.” 

Vicky Ford went on to underscore the UK’s role in financing COVAX and other pandemic response mechanisms, highlighting the role the UK will play in the upcoming Summit for Pandemic Preparedness which the UK is hosting. The summit aims to raise funds for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) for their crucial work in vaccine research and development to accelerate the pace of vaccine development. As host, the UK must lead by example and make an ambitious pledge to CEPI. 

With regards to the TRIPS waiver, Vicky Ford argued that intellectual property is vital to innovation, and voluntary licensing is the best way to share critical technology.

Debate sponsor Wendy Chamberlain concluded her closing remarks by asking, “In relation to the TRIPS waiver…my question would be, why do 130 countries feel differently to the UK in that regard?” 

Shadow Labour MP Preet Kaur Gill also summarised: “If the UK government is serious about ‘Global Britain’, it also needs to be serious about global health.”

There were more fantastic interventions and responses than we have space to cover in this write up, but you can watch the whole debate here

If you want to take action on the TRIPS Waiver, check out our November action and to take action on funding and support to polio eradication, check out our January action.

For reference, the following briefings were made available ahead of the debate:

TRIPS Waiver briefing

COVID-19 vaccines dose donations briefing

Routine immunisation briefing

Health systems strengthening briefing