A puzzling lack of logic in govt vaccine strategy

A puzzling lack of logic in govt vaccine strategy

The coronavirus stays alive and continues to spread because it is constantly changing. On the other hand, Thailand's vaccination programme seems very static.

Why?

The government went all-in on the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine which now makes up more than 90% of the shots to be provided to the population.

The other vaccine being given is the China-made CoronaVac.

Despite repeated warnings, the government appears confident in its heavily lopsided plan.

It keeps repeating that the AstraZeneca vaccine, which will be produced here under a technology transfer deal by the palace-owned biopharmaceutical company Siam Bioscience, is the country's best bet.

As its favourite vaccine runs into more bad news, the decision to pin almost all of the country's hopes for a recovery on a single vaccine appears more high-risk than high-return.

At what point will the Thai government review its inoculation plan that put AstraZeneca at the front and centre?

If and when that time comes, who should take responsibility for the increasingly controversial strategy?

Even though the World Health Organization (WHO) and European Medicines Agency (EMA) consider that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh its risk of causing rare blood clots, Canada and Germany are continuing to suspend its roll-out among younger age groups.

The United States has also put Johnson & Johnson in charge of the plant that mixed ingredients for the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines. thereby ruining 15 million doses.

AstraZeneca Plc, whose vaccine has not been approved for use in the US, was then barred from using the facility, according to Reuters.

Last week US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci also said the US may not need the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at all as the country has enough contracts with other vaccine makers to inoculate the entire population.

These developments have further hampered the British-made vaccine.

But Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul appeared oblivious to the new information.

In an interview last week, Mr Anutin insisted that the vaccine rollout which kicked off early last month is proceeding as planned.

He and the government are still banking on the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Mr Anutin said he wouldn't be able to sleep at night had there not been the technology transfer contract allowing Siam Bioscience to produce the formula here in Thailand, according to news reports.

It would appear the public health minister is still stuck with the illusion that intense competition for the AstraZeneca vaccines from around the world would undercut the supply for Thailand.

Mr Anutin's comment might have been relevant last month but today the concern seems to have moved on to how safe and effective the AstraZeneca vaccine really is.

It is worrying if the public health minister is not up to date with the global vaccine situation.

Instead of taking into account warnings that Thailand has been too slow and overly reliant on a single vaccine in its rollout, Mr Anutin and the government at large appear more intent on self-congratulation.

Instead of trying to modify the programme as new information becomes available, the powers-that-be appear recalcitrant.

It looks like they almost single-handedly have tried to turn a blind eye to the latest developments and recommendations.

As the world debated the AstraZeneca jab's blood-clot risk and its low efficacy against the South African variant, the government remains busy promoting its "brilliant'' domestic deal.

While it is true that at this point the AstraZeneca vaccine is still approved for continued use by the WHO, the downsides are becoming apparent.

But are they enough for the Thai government to start diversifying the programme?

The government said it will not prevent private hospitals from importing Covid-19 vaccines but the Public Health Ministry is still not permitting any to order or reserve alternative supplies.

That means the country will remain stuck with only two vaccines despite the rhetoric.

A survey of 191 executives with the Federation of Thai Industries (FTI) last week revealed that most of them are worried about the slow distribution of vaccines and the subsequent impact on the economic recovery.

They also urged the government to allow the private sector to import more vaccines and help with the distribution.

Yet the government refuses to budge, and it's increasingly puzzling why.

Atiya Achakulwisut is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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