Analyst urges local vaccine output
Ramping up jabs offers herd immunity
It will take Thailand two years to reach herd immunity for Covid-19 at the current rate of vaccination, but if local vaccine production plans ramp up and vaccination rates increase, hope remains for a quicker timeline, according to a report by Deutsche Bank.
As of April 28, 1.5% of Thais have had at least one shot of a vaccine, while about 59,000 people have been infected with Covid-19 and survived, meaning they should have some level of immunity to the virus.
According to Michael Spencer, chief economist for Asia-Pacific at Deutsche Bank and author of the "Time to Immunity in Asia" report, Thailand could reach herd immunity, meaning 70% of the population having some form of immunity, by the end of this year if the country ramps up vaccine administration by three times the current rate, or 190,000 shots per day.
However, this rate is unlikely as the government is only aiming to vaccinate 50% of the population by the end of the year, said Mr Spencer. Yet Thailand remains in a favourable position compared with its regional peers, despite lagging in vaccination, he said.
"Thailand looks to be in a better position than other Asean countries, other than Singapore," said Mr Spencer. "It is ramping up vaccinations much faster and could begin reaching higher percentages of the population, while vaccine rollout is slowing in places like Malaysia."
According to the report, vaccination numbers are falling in Malaysia and not increasing as fast as expected in Indonesia and the Philippines.
The Thai government has been widely criticised for its slow vaccine rollout, relying on only two kinds of vaccine and other questionable decisions such as vaccinating caddies at military golf courses before some frontline health workers. Much poorer Asean nations such as Cambodia and even Myanmar have managed to vaccinate higher percentages of their populations.
But if local production of AstraZeneca vaccines begins on schedule in June, Thailand's vaccination rates will pick up despite the late start, he said. Thailand could surpass regional peers like Malaysia and Indonesia.
Mr Spencer said Thailand has a greater economic incentive than most nations to achieve herd immunity because of its reliance on tourism. Achieving 70% immunity in the population would mean Thailand could safely reopen to foreign travellers without risking an outbreak among vulnerable populations.
Countries such as Vietnam, which has only vaccinated 0.4% of its population, can afford a slower rollout because of its continued economic growth during the pandemic and lower reliance on foreign tourists, he said.
"Thailand is pretty average in terms of vaccination rates for an economy its size. Most countries offer a limited range of vaccines," said Mr Spencer. "Many other developing countries do not use the more effective vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna because of the high cost of the extreme cold storage."
While Thailand has made errors in its vaccination policies causing it to lag behind other Asean countries, the main factor contributing to the slow rollout is the unequal global distribution system, under which richer countries were able to buy up over half of the available vaccines, he said.
Vaccine hoarding even caused the World Health Organization's Covax programme to underperform. Designed to secure vaccines for developing nations, it has delivered only 38 million doses of vaccines to 100 countries as of April 8.
The Thai government's controversial decision not to join the Covax programme has not yet damaged the country because the scheme has been unable to secure enough vaccines to make a considerable difference in vaccination rates of member countries, said Mr Spencer. Thailand's decision to rely on domestic production could yet prove prudent, he said.
"Yet domestic production in countries like Thailand and South Korea has proven more difficult than expected as they face delays in getting started," said Mr Spencer. "In a non-Covid environment, from negotiations to producing the vaccine could happen in only six months, but during Covid, six months can feel like a long time."
The report highlighted that rich countries in Asia-Pacific are also experiencing trouble with securing vaccines. Nations such as Japan, Australia and South Korea have far lower vaccination rates than comparable economies in Europe and North America.
Leading Asia in vaccinations is Singapore, which is 132 days away from herd immunity, according to the report. China is 153 days away.