Medicines and Medical Devices Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:52 pm on 2nd September 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Sheehan Baroness Sheehan Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 4:52 pm, 2nd September 2020

My Lords, I will raise an issue that was not raised in the other place; I cannot hope to do it justice in four minutes. However, it is topical and urgent and, as confirmed by the Public Bill Office, within scope.

A safe and effective vaccine for Covid-19 is critical if we are to return to life as we knew it just a few short months ago. One does not yet exist. There are promising candidates out there, but we know from our experience in setting up an efficient testing regime that it is not easy to get from concept to delivery, however much of a world-beater a candidate may be. Bearing that in mind, thought and planning are necessary to help us beat this disease. Moreover—this point lies at the crux of my contribution today—we must act in unison with all countries of the world to ensure equitable access for all to any successful vaccines and treatments, because until everyone is safe, no one is safe.

Our experience here also shows that a small number of local cases can very soon become an outbreak and stringent restrictions have to be reimposed, Glasgow being the most recent example. It does not need a great leap of imagination to extrapolate this to the global stage. We really do all have to work together and co-ordinate action. Pharmaceutical companies have to play their part too.

Let us suppose that a safe and effective vaccine is found. The volumes of production required to inoculate the entire global population will be staggering and vastly outstrip the manufacturing capacity of individual companies. Holding exclusive licences over Covid-19 health technologies will not only affect pricing and hinder further research but prevent countries producing the volumes needed. Given that the UK, US, Japan and the EU countries have already secured over 1.8 billion of CEPI’s estimated 2 billion to 4 billion dose volume available until the end of 2021, the sharing of IP and know-how will be key to scaling up manufacturing capacity to meet global demand, in particular to ensure that low and middle-income countries can access a Covid-19 vaccine. To control the spread of Covid-19, it is crucial for all countries to be able to vaccinate the minimum 20% of their population necessary to protect key workers and vital health systems that, once lost, will take much time and money to reinstate.

Together with partners such as Gavi and CEPI, the WHO has been working to co-ordinate global action, resulting in myriad acronyms—the ACT accelerator, the AMC COVAX facility and CTAP, among many others. It is good that the Government have supported these initiatives, but—this is the huge part—they lack safeguards to ensure that vaccines and treatments, often resulting from huge investment from public purses, will be made available for all at a fair price.

I will give just a couple of examples of why these safeguards are so necessary. Gilead’s Remdesivir has been proven to reduce the need for mechanical ventilation for Covid-19 patients in hospital. However, with monopoly protection, Gilead was able to charge the US $2,340 per five-day treatment course of the drug, despite the substantial amount of public funding to develop the drug and researchers at the University of Liverpool calculating that the drug can be made for $9 at a reasonable profit. AstraZeneca has said it will supply the vaccine at cost to the UK Government during the pandemic phase, but what price will the NHS have to pay post pandemic? What happens to the money paid in advance if the vaccine is not approved? The contract between the UK Government and AstraZeneca has still not been published.

The Bill represents a timely opportunity to ensure that intellectual property rights support public health imperatives, as per the 2001 Doha declaration on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, TRIPS. The Government also have another tool in the issuance of Crown-use licences, similar to steps taken by countries such as Australia, Canada and Germany. In conclusion, will the Government take up the International Trade Select Committee’s recommendation to evaluate the case for measures to allow compulsory licensing, so that Covid-19 technologies are available as quickly, cheaply and widely as possible?