Thailand has started its mass Covid vaccination program Monday, following criticism of delays and concerns from health authorities based on AstraZeneca photos produced by a company owned by the king of the country.
The Southeast Asian nation is grappling with a third wave of coronavirus with the highest number of reported daily cases and deaths since the start of the pandemic, raising public concerns over adequate access to vaccines.
Thailand reported 2,662 new cases of Covid-19 and 28 deaths on Tuesday, according to its Covid-19 task force (CCSA).
Thailand plans to administer 6 million vaccines in June using the AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines, according to the country’s public relations department.
On Monday, in the capital, Bangkok, 25 vaccination posts were set up outside hospitals, shopping malls, metro stations, gymnasiums, gas stations and university campuses.
In a letter to CNN on June 11, Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat said that in the first three days of the mass vaccination campaign, the country administered more than one million doses.
“Thailand has always been committed and recognized for providing timely disease control measures since the start of the pandemic,” Tanee said.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last month set a target of 100 million doses of the vaccine to be administered by the end of the year. Most of them – 61 million – are expected to be doses of AstraZeneca produced locally by the royal company Siam BioScience.
The country has been criticized by opposition leaders for its overdependence on a single supplier and for concerns about the lack of supply. Thailand wants to vaccinate 70% of the population by the end of the year, but so far only around 4% of its 69 million people have received at least one dose.
Reuters reported Last week, some hospitals postponed vaccination appointments due to lack of doses, with a medical group saying the delay would affect nearly 40,000 people.
Meanwhile, the Philippines said on June 1 that delivery of the first batches of an order for 17 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced by Siam BioScience had been delayed and curtailed, according to to Reuters.
“The fight to secure vaccines is not just Thai, but global, especially for developing countries,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanee said. “No stone is overlooked in ensuring that Thailand has access to a diverse and sufficient supply of vaccines in coordination with the Ministry of Public Health. “
AstraZeneca works with Siam BioScience to produce and distribute vaccines throughout Southeast Asia. The vaccine will be ready to be exported to other countries in the region in July, according to a press release.
Observing the deployment outside Bang Sue Central Station in Bangkok, Prime Minister Prayut sought to reassure the public that there would be enough vaccines.
“People are concerned about the arrangement regarding the Covid-19 vaccine. The government has not ignored the fact that the relevant offices have been tasked with urgent negotiations to find more vaccines for all consenting Thais, ”he said.
Negotiations are underway for 20 million doses of Pfizer / BioNTech and 5 million doses of Johnson & Johnson, according to an article posted on the government’s Facebook page.
But questions of public transparency and whether Siam BioScience can meet its production targets is a sensitive issue in Thailand. Founded in 2009, the biopharmaceutical maker is uniquely owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn and has never made vaccines before.
Thailand has some of the strictest lese majesty laws in the world, according to which criticizing the king, queen or heir apparent can result in a 15-year prison sentence.
In January, opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was charged with defamation of the monarchy by the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society and then by a representative of the Prime Minister. In a live Facebook broadcast, he questioned the government for moving slowly to get enough doses of the vaccine. He also criticized the government for relying on a single vaccine supplier, AstraZeneca, which subsequently selected Siam BioScience, owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, as the main producer in Southeast Asia last year.
A Thai court dropped the lawsuit against Thanathorn in January, saying his comments about royal society were based on facts. However, another court case against Thanathorn is still pending. Police Lt. Col. Athich Donnanchai, of the Nang Loeng Metropolitan Police Station, said CNN authorities were interviewing witnesses and aimed to report the case to the public prosecutor by mid-June. Donnanchai confirmed to CNN that Thanathorn has been charged with lese majeste and under the Computer Crimes Act based on the same Facebook Live video.
CNN has reached out to Siam BioScience for comment. Speaking to the Standard‘s local media, Nualphan Lamsam, Honorary Director of Corporate Communications at Siam BioScience, defended the company and said there was no delay in the delivery of the vaccine.
Thailand’s Department of Disease Control said as of June 7, there were 2.04 million doses of AstraZeneca and 1.5 million doses of Sinovac available in the country.
The department said it expected to receive an additional 3.43 million doses by the end of June.
Although it began its mass deployment on Monday, Thailand began immunizing medical personnel and frontline workers on February 28. As of June 4, more than 4 million doses had been administered, including 1 million doses in Bangkok, he said.
Thailand managed to keep the total number of Covid-19 cases low until the most recent outbreak emerged in a Bangkok entertainment district in early April, ahead of the infections spread in prisons, factories, migrant workers’ dormitories and slums.
As of June 12, Thailand had reported a total of 193,105 Covid-19 cases and 1,431 deaths, according to the country’s health ministry.