Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 323442, relating to vaccination for Covid-19.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. The petition is entitled,
“Prevent any restrictions on those who refuse a Covid-19 vaccination”.
To date, more than 307,000 people have signed it, including 641 from my constituency. It states:
“I want the Government to prevent any restrictions being placed on those who refuse to have any potential Covid-19 vaccine. This includes restrictions on travel, social events, such as concerts or sports. No restrictions whatsoever. You cannot force someone to have a vaccination, and should not be able to coerce them into it by way of restrictions. We have to the right to assess the risk ourselves as we have done in the past.”
The Government’s reply states categorically:
“There are currently no plans to place restrictions on those who refuse to have any potential Covid-19 vaccine.”
So there we are. I quite agree that, in a modern liberal democracy, the state cannot and should not force someone to put something into their body, nor should it introduce punitive measures against those who refuse to do so. The Government have confirmed in their reply that they have no such intention, but rather than leaving it at that I will make some remarks. As the petition gives us the opportunity to discuss vaccinations, I will urge people to get the vaccine when their time comes. In doing so, I will offer reassurance about the safety of not just this vaccine but others, which also go through rigorous trials before being distributed to the public. I also want to dispel some of the myths about vaccinations.
We can be proud that a Brit, Edward Jenner, first discovered vaccinations in the form that we know them today. In 1796—a year that none of us was around for, I am sure—Jenner demonstrated that a mild infection with the cowpox virus conferred immunity against the deadly smallpox virus. Cowpox served as the natural vaccine for smallpox until a more modern vaccine emerged in the 19th century, laying the groundwork for the system of vaccinations that we know today. Smallpox remains the only virus that is considered to be eradicated internationally since its eradication was declared in 1980.
Since Jenner’s discovery, vaccines have been developed to offer immunity to a whole range of viruses, such as measles, mumps, rubella, influenza, tetanus, polio, diphtheria, yellow fever, rabies, hepatitis, human papillomavirus, meningitis and so many more. It is easy, therefore, to take vaccines for granted, but I invite colleagues to have a think just for a moment about the impact that vaccines have had on the world. Those illnesses would once have struck dread, fear and anguish into the millions who were diagnosed with them. Yet today our lives are quietly unaffected by those horrors, thanks to the seemingly simple concept of quick action through vaccines.
Of course, when we have to put things into our bodies, we want to know that they are safe, and vaccines have some of the most—if not the most—rigorous safety tests in the world. One of the most common questions I receive from my constituents, which I am sure other hon. Members receive from theirs, is about how we know whether the covid vaccine is safe. Vaccines are not like electrical items such as new iPhones, which go through some initial testing and then into the market. When initial flaws are found, they are then brought out with new additions to address those flaws. Vaccines have to be considered safe from day one.
The standard for testing and monitoring vaccines is higher than for most other medicines, because they are unusual in the medical world in that they are put into the bodies of healthy people, especially healthy children. That means that the acceptable level of risk of harm is much lower than in cancer treatment, for example, for which we accept a certain level of risk, given the illness that we are battling.
According to the Oxford Vaccine Group, the following are just some of the stages that a vaccine has to go through before use: a literature review to look at what has been done before; a theoretical development or innovation, coming up with a new idea or varying an existing one; and laboratory testing and development, involving in vitro testing using individual cells and in vivo testing, which often uses mice. Even at that early stage, when the vaccine is not being tested on humans, it still has to pass rigorous safety tests to demonstrate that it works.
After that stage, it will move on to a phase 1 study: an initial trial of a small group of adult participants, normally up to only 100, carried out to ensure that the vaccine does not have a major safety concern in humans and to work out the most effective dose. We then move on to a phase 2 study: a trial with a larger group of participants, normally several hundred, to check that the vaccine works consistently across various groups of people and to look at whether it starts to generate an immune response. It is also in this stage that we start to find out any potential side-effects.
After that stage, we move on to a phase 3 study: a trial of a much larger group of people—normally several thousand. Those trials gather statistically significant data on the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, which means looking at whether the vaccine generates the level of immunity that would prevent disease, and which provides evidence that the vaccine can actually reduce the number of cases. The phase 3 study also gives us a better chance of understanding side-effects, particularly rarer side-effects that might not have been caught in the phase 2 trials.
After the phase 3 studies, we move into licensing and expert review of all trial data by the UK Government and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. At that stage, regulators check that the trials show that the product meets the necessary efficacy and safety levels. They also ensure that, for example, the product’s advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. After the vaccine is disseminated to the public, phase 4 studies start: post-marketing surveillance of the vaccine to monitor the effects after it has been administered to the general population.
That is quite a substantial list of safety tests, but it does not stop there, because the vaccine, and the trials used to test it, must also meet a set of regulations. They include regulations laid down in international conference on harmonisation good clinical practice; the declaration of Helsinki, which is about ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects; the EU clinical trials directive, enshrined in UK law by the Medicines for Human Use (Clinical Trials) Regulations 2004; and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health guidelines for the ethical conduct of medical research involving children.
In addition to that additional layer of safety, for trials in the United Kingdom the vaccine and the trials used in its development must receive individual approval from the MHRA, while the trial itself must be approved by an NHS research ethics committee, a local NHS research and development office, and the Health and Safety Executive. That is quite an extensive list of tests and regulations that a vaccine has to go through before it is considered safe to be used by the wider public.
Vaccines go through rigorous testing, and all information relating to their testing, licensing, side-effects and so on is available for public scrutiny. Vaccines are also constantly monitored after approval. The extensive list of stages a new vaccine must go through raises the question of how the covid-19 vaccine—the Pfizer vaccine currently being rolled out—was approved so quickly. Vaccines can take several years to be approved, so that is a fair question, which we must answer.
To reassure people, there are several answers, and I am sure that the Minister will have further details. The first obvious reason why this particular vaccine has been rolled out so fast is the huge international effort that has gone into finding a vaccine for covid-19, and the funding that has gone along with it. Finding a working vaccine has been the primary, if not sole, job of many of the world’s scientists for much of the past year, and has been backed by funding from various foreign Governments.
Dr June Raine, the chief executive of the MHRA, has explained further how the UK in particular was able to approve the vaccine so quickly. I advise people to look at her article in The Times titled, “How we backed a Covid vaccine before the rest of the West”, in which she spoke of the work that went into getting preparations in place before the vaccine data arrived, meaning that the MHRA was not starting from scratch. That included setting up an independent expert working panel in June, preparing laboratories for batch testing in September, and reviewing rolling data from Pfizer from October. That meant that by 23 November, when the final data submission arrived at the MHRA, good progress had already been made so that it could review the data, consult with the Commission on Human Medicines and approve the vaccine for use once satisfied, with no corners cut and no stone left unturned.
It is only natural to have questions about something that we put into our bodies, so I hope that that offers some peace of mind. People should ask questions, speak to their GP, pharmacist and so on about this or any vaccine, and find out the information that they want to know. Go to those with the knowledge—please do not listen to dangerous internet conspiracy theories.
If people need any proof that the anti-vax movement is driven by anything but concern for public safety, they need look no further than Brian Deer’s excellent book, “The Doctor Who Fooled the World: Andrew Wakefield’s War on Vaccines”, which I had the pleasure of reading before today’s debate. He expertly demonstrates the lies, the bad science, the personal ambition and everything in between that drives this well-funded and well-organised movement, which has ulterior motives to the ones it claims publicly. Because of the anti-vax movement, children are now dying from illnesses that they could easily have been prevented from contracting, such as measles, mumps and rubella, which is an absolute disgrace.
Vaccines are not just safe, but they are a marvel of hundreds of years of medical and scientific research. A seemingly simple concept of an injection, over in a matter of seconds, will prevent people from contracting ailments that would otherwise have caused them life-changing harm or even death. I hope I have managed to demonstrate that vaccines in the UK go through the strongest possible checks for safety before they can be used.
I have heard the calls, as I am sure have other hon. Members, from those who say, “Well, if it is safe, why don’t you have it? Prove to us that you have had it.” As a 28-year-old with no underlying health conditions that make me more susceptible to a respiratory illness, such as coronavirus, I should not be taking the vaccine from someone who needs it, but if that is what it takes to get people to have it, then I will gladly have it. Sign me up, and I will have the vaccine, with as many cameras there as people want. Ultimately, I want people to listen to the debate and take away this message: please, please, please have the vaccine when the time comes and you are asked to come forward. The right, healthy, patriotic and human thing to do is to be vaccinated to protect individuals and those around them.
I was not the only one moved by the words of those who had the vaccine on the first day. They talked about how they had been separated from their loved ones for so long, and were looking forward to seeing people and doing normal things again. Any number of the people who had the vaccine on the first day would have been poignant to reference, but I cannot sum up today’s debate in any better words than those of Mr Kenyon, who was interviewed on the streets of London by the American news organisation CNN:
“There’s no point dying now, when I have lived this long, is there?”