HC Deb 25 April 1955 vol 540 cc620-4
Mr. Iain Macleod

With permission, I should like now to make a statement in reply to Questions Nos. 29, 30, 31, 34 and 36.

I know that the whole House will wish to congratulate Dr. Salk on what is clearly a momentous and historic advance in the protection of human well-being. The Health Departments and the Medical Research Council have been in close touch with these developments in the United States.

For our part, we shall go ahead with the increased production of the new vaccine in this country; two important firms are already arranging to do this as fast as possible and it is the Government's intention to ask these firms to sell to the Government their whole output, and, in due course, a Supplementary Estimate will have to be submitted to the House for that purpose. No supplies, in any material quantity, are at present obtainable from the United States. Home production should assume really useful dimensions by the late autumn, and I am advised that, in any case, it would be medically unwise—even if it were possible—to embark on any large-scale vaccination during the peak season of the disease, which begins to end about then. It is, for example, quite usual for diphtheria immunisations to be suspended during the prevalence of poliomyelitis.

Many interpretations have been put upon the attitude of this country to this development. Perhaps it is as well to put the facts in plain words to the House. This new vaccine involves inoculating our children at repeated intervals with a preparation derived from the kidneys of dead monkeys. The House and the country will surely agree that we must carry out intensive tests as to the exact effects so that we can eliminate any possible dangers from it. We are already doing this. We must also make sure, as we shall, that it is effective against the particular strains of the virus most commonly found in this country; indeed, it is not sure yet that it is fully effective in the case of children of about four or under, where our incidence of the disease is highest, and it seems that it may be less than normally effective against Type I of the virus—the commonest type over here.

I mention these reservations because it is important to keep the picture in true perspective. But they in no way detract from the immense humanitarian value of this great discovery or affect our determination that our own people shall benefit from it to the fullest possible extent.

Mr. Dodds

While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his very full statement, may I ask, in connection with the success which the Americans claim, whether he is aware that this year they are treating 13½ million children? Would he agree that they have made excellent tests? Despite all his reservations, can we have an assurance, particularly as this vaccine was produced in Canada, that we are not making excuses for the very slow way in which we have taken up this vaccine?

Mr. Macleod

I simply do not see how anyone can make a charge like that. This report came to us by air last Tuesday. A great deal of intensive work has been going on since then, and in my statement I have given an undertaking that we will buy the output of the firms in this country who are making the vaccine. We will go straight ahead, so that our people can benefit from the discovery as soon as possible. However, I thought it right—and I am sure it is right—to mention to the House the reservations one must have on such an important matter.

Mr. Elliot

I am sure that the whole House will support my right hon. Friend in his desire to have these matters tested before embarking on any large-scale treatment of the children of this country, but will he publicise the lines of the tests which he is considering? I do not wish my right hon. Friend to go into too great detail, but if he could give some information about his investigations I am sure it would do much to reassure opinion in this country.

Mr. Macleod

The question of research is essentially one for my noble Friend as Lord President of the Council, but I understand that the Medical Research Council is carrying out trials in Southend, Manchester, Sheffield, Belfast and, I think, Glasgow. If my right hon. Friend wants more details, perhap she will put a Question on the Order Paper.

Mr. G. Darling

May we take it that the view of the Minister is that research—without going into the details which fall to his noble Friend—should be encouraged in this country as a result of the discovery of the new vaccine in America, and should be on a greater scale in order to find a more suitable vaccine for our own needs?

Mr. Macleod

Yes, certainly. This is an important and exciting discovery, but it is not necessarily the end of the story. For example, there are many people who think that a killed virus will not necessarily in the end prove to be the most effective, and research on that and other matters is going on.

Mr. Marquand

Does what the right hon. Gentleman has said mean that he expects that by the late autumn the tests will have reached such a stage that it may be possible to begin inoculation? May I also ask him whether he is aware that on this side of the House there will be ready agreement to a Supplementary Estimate, in view of his pledge that this matter is being kept under Government control?

Mr. Macleod

Yes, Sir. As far as the second part of that supplementary question is concerned, that would be common ground on both sides of the House. As far as the first part is concerned, pilot batches of this vaccine are already available for testing. One would hope that all the necessary testing will have been finished by the autumn and that substantial quantities of the vaccine—it is difficult to estimate how much, but between 500 and 1,000 litres—will be available to us by the end of the year.

Lady Tweedsmuir

Can my right hon. Friend say whether any of the British vaccine will be available in the Commonwealth and whether, apart from Canada, any research will be undertaken overseas?

Mr. Macleod

The Commonwealth point is a most important one. Even if our supplies be small—and they will be for some time—I am sure that the House would wish that in due course we should send some of our resources to different parts of the Commonwealth if the vaccine is required there, even though they be only quite small pilot batches in the first instance.

Mr. Hastings

While congratulating the right hon. Gentleman upon his prompt action in this matter, may I ask him why he has decided that the manufacture of this vaccine should be undertaken by two private firms instead of in national laboratories?

Mr. Macleod

I have not decided that. Two private firms, both of the highest repute, are going ahead with it. It may well be that other firms will take it up in due course, but offhand I cannot think that we are centrally equipped to do the work that has been going on for some time in these firms.

Mr. J. R. H. Hutchison

May I ask my right hon. Friend two questions? First, will any programme which he is planning apply pari passu to Scotland? Secondly, in the research that has taken place so far, either in this country or in the United States, have any damaging secondary effects been found?

Mr. Macleod

On the first point, everything I have said is agreed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I used the term "Health Departments" to include Scotland, and, naturally, all Scottish needs will be taken into account. As regards secondary effects, instead of trying to summarise a very long and complicated report, probably the best thing I can do is to put a copy in the Library if hon. Members would like to study it.

Mr. Lee

As American personnel at their big air bases in this country are to have this vaccine made available to them, would the right hon. Gentleman consider it proper that in those areas information should be given widely to our own people, because of the anxieties which may well occur in such areas, since British children cannot get it while Americans with whom they will be playing can obtain it?

Mr. Macleod

Yes, I will study that point.

Mr. Fort

Can my right hon. Friend assure us that the whole programme will not be held up by the shortage of monkeys, in view of the very large number needed for the preparation of the vaccine and its test?

Mr. Macleod

It is certainly true—it is a strange problem—that the major limiting factor at the moment, and for some time to come unless a new medium of cultivation is discovered, may be the shortage of monkeys. We have already taken action, through my noble Friend, to contact the Government of India on the matter, and the Medical Research Council has already sent representatives to Africa to study the possibility of further supplies of monkeys from there.

Mr. Dodds

Further to my reference to the speed with which the right hon. Gentleman has moved since he received this report last Tuesday, is it not a fact that these experiments were carried out on a large scale in America last year, and that a large amount of the vaccine has been produced in Canada? My question was, how is it that we are so late in the field in something about which many people have known for a long time?

Mr. Macleod

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's second supplementary makes his first any more accurate in any way at all. Nobody could have moved faster in the matter than we have done, and all that the hon. Member is suggesting is that, in a matter of very great importance to all the people of this country, I should, in fact, have moved in advance of knowledge of the success of these tests. I have no intention of doing that.