UK must step up efforts to end pandemic - MP on arrival of Omicron variant

Dr Dan Poulter

MP Dan Poulter believes we need to share vaccine know-how to prevent new Covid variants undermining our efforts - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Reducing the risk of new variants is essential to protecting our NHS and economy, so the UK must step up its effort to end the pandemic globally

Dr Dan Poulter MP; Member of Parliament for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich I know that many of you may have significant concerns about the new Omicron/B.1.1.529 variant. Whilst we are still building a picture about the threat this variant poses to us, we must also consider how - 20 months into this pandemic - we have come to be faced with this new challenge.

I also want to explain, as your representative, what in my view the UK should be doing to reduce the risk of further variants emerging. Yesterday, I wrote in The Telegraph about the need to temporarily waive intellectual property rights on vaccines, tests and treatments in order to increase their global supply and therefore increase protection from the virus.

I have been taking action on this issue by joining over 90 of my fellow parliamentarians from across both houses in writing to the International Trade Secretary asking her to support a temporary waiver of intellectual property on COVID-19 technologies - known as the TRIPS waiver - at the World Trade Organisation. The TRIPS waiver was tabled by South Africa and India last October, and is supported by over 100 other countries, including the USA. It would allow more vaccines to be produced, more locally across more regions, thus increasing the supply and helping this pandemic come to an end sooner. Since adding my name to that letter last week, the WTO has cancelled the Twelfth Ministerial Conference in Geneva, known as MC12, that was due to begin this week - out of concern for the new variant. That alone should symbolise the cost of inaction.

We cannot allow this pandemic to continue; all of us are far too aware of how precious the progress we have made against this virus is. Over the past 20 months we have had limits on our freedom like never seen before in my lifetime and our economy is still bouncing back from this. In other nations, such as Austria and Germany, we are already seeing freedoms being limited again as COVID-19 cases surge. This should be a stark warning for us in the UK.

The threat to our recovery from new variants is real; none of us are safe until all of us are safe. The Omicron variant, which could be more infectious than the Delta variant and potentially resistant to existing vaccines, is a reminder of this harsh reality.

We cannot guarantee that our successful vaccination programme will remain so if new variants mutate to be resistant to our existing vaccines. The longer people go unvaccinated in other parts of the world, the greater the risk of variants. And let’s also not forget that UK businesses are reliant on global supply chains and movement of persons - which remain at risk from Covid-19.

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Put simply, we need to vaccinate the world - fast.

Currently, access to Covid-19 vaccines, as well as treatments and tests, is vastly unequal. As the UK has been rolling out a successful booster programme, in low income countries the figure for those fully vaccinated stands at less than 3%. And in some countries such as Ethiopia, as little as 1.2% of the population are fully vaccinated.

This poses a moral challenge for us as a society. Whilst it’s right that we protect everyone in the UK as quickly as possible, we cannot turn our backs with the knowledge that health workers on the front line of the pandemic in countries such as Ethiopia or Uganda are trying to save lives now but are themselves still unprotected from this virus. Allowing this moral failure to persist is completely out of line with British values.

One of the key obstacles preventing us from getting higher vaccination rates globally is a limit to global supply. As it currently stands, a quarter of all vaccines have been delivered to high income countries while the world’s poorest countries have received less than 1% of the total supply.

COVAX, the facility to deliver vaccines to low- and middle-income countries, has been priced out of the market and now reliant on charity - at best, COVAX will help vaccinate only 23% of people in these countries by the end of 2021.

Now, pharmaceutical companies have worked at incredible speed to develop vaccines that have been crucial in getting us to this point. However, when we have a global crisis of this scale, we have to come together collectively.

There is a moral imperative for pharmaceutical companies to be part of the solution and work with the Government, such as how we’ve seen AstraZeneca providing vaccines at cost-price. And while donations are welcome, they have been slow to be dispersed - 14% of the 1.8 billion doses promised by G7 countries have been delivered to date. And even this promised figure falls far short of filling the global vaccine void with nearly half of all people across the world not fully vaccinated.

Yet, there are many more manufacturers that could be making vaccines, but they are limited by the intellectual property barriers and a lack of sharing of know-how from pharmaceutical companies. Whilst useful in many circumstances, in this instance, we can see intellectual property law limiting production to a small number of pharmaceutical companies.

This has strangled supply, inflating vaccine prices beyond their market value; the UK alone has potentially paid £1.8 billion more than the estimated cost of production for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Whilst already questionable whether richer nations should be bearing such high cost, it is proving deadly for lower and middle-income nations.

Right now, the fastest, most-effective way to increase global vaccination rates is through a temporary waiving of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments combined with measures to ensure the know-how of how to make them is shared. In my experience as a GP and as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Global Health, I believe this is the right thing to do to get more vaccines in more arms at speed.

The UK must ensure we don’t risk losing the progress we’ve made in building back better. As your MP, I will continue to advocate for bold and necessary UK action to protect our NHS and economy from new variants. I ask that our Government champions our global reputation as a reliable international partner by working with our global partners to implement the TRIPS waiver, and vaccinate the world before it is too late.

Dr Dan Poulter MP is an NHS hospital doctor, working in mental health services, who has served as the Conservative MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich since May 2010. He is chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Health and Vice-Chair of the APPG on Coronavirus.