If jabs don't work, we must have Plan B

If jabs don't work, we must have Plan B

People in Klong Toey receive their second dose of Covid-19 vaccine. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)
People in Klong Toey receive their second dose of Covid-19 vaccine. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)

What would you do if you were a government facing a (rapidly) falling economy, receding tax income, ballooning public and private debts, drying up domestic liquidity, and feeble economic relief programmes?

You give people hope and reason to dream. Even though you know very well such hopes and dreams are unlikely to come true. The hope is that some time in October, Thailand will open the country to foreign tourists and, with tourist dollars and normalisation of economic activities, the economy will drastically improve. A light at the end of the tunnel, in fact.

The hope is based on the theory of "herd immunity". Under the theory, after about 70% of the community (the herd) is immune to a disease, the rest will be protected as well as there is no one to infect them. As a result, the entire community is safe. For example, if you have a herd of 100 sheep, you need to vaccinate only 70 sheep.

Since 70 sheep are disease-free, the remaining 30 sheep have almost no chance of getting the disease from the herd. It is obvious this theory is only effective when the herd is raised on a closed farm. If you raise your sheep in an open field, your non-vaccinated sheep will risk contracting diseases from other herds roaming in a vast open field.

In short, the theory of "herd immunity" does not go well with the concept of "opening up the country" as it is like opening your farm gate to unsafe sheep.

To achieve herd immunity for Thai citizens, the government plans to vaccinate 70% of the population, roughly 50 million people before Oct 14 or so.

But because of the short time frame, only one dose of vaccine is expected to be given as opposed to the recommended two doses of vaccines by most manufacturers.

There are four obstacles to overcome before Thailand can achieve herd immunity and can safely open to foreign visitors.

First, prevention of "unsafe" visitors. The government knows the herd immunity concept is only applicable in a closed environment. That is why the World Health Organization (WHO) repeatedly said the world will not be safe from coronavirus until the whole world is vaccinated.

Therefore, the government will only allow foreign visitors who received two vaccine shots to enter the kingdom. We all know that vaccines are not meant to prevent disease transmission but to prevent people from getting very sick from the virus.

In fact, no vaccine manufacturer claims their vaccines have the ability to slow down transmission.

According to a study by Public Health England conducted with 365,000 samples, immunisation with either Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine reduced the chance of virus transmission by 40-60%, which means that about half the foreign guests can be carriers of a virus of unknown origin. Scary? It would be scarier if the immunisation is performed with other brands of vaccines.

Second, virus mutation. The coronavirus mutates faster than humans can invent proper vaccines. Early last year when the pandemic started, we had the original "Wuhan" strain which is now almost obsolete and so, no Greek codename is given.

Then comes the British version (Alpha), first detected in September 2020, to replace Wuhan. Not long after that, Alpha lost its dominant status to the mighty Indian (Delta) strain as 91% new infections in Britain are caused by the Delta strain.

The Indian version possesses a transmissibility rate 2.5 times faster than the Wuhan, and is primed to take over the world. Not to be outdone, the South American continent has come up with the Brazil strain (Gamma) and a new kid on the block, the Peru strain (Lambda) which is known to be quite deadly.

Of course, one cannot forget the South African version (Beta) which can put the Astra Zeneca vaccine to shame as it is only 10.4% effective against the virus.

The least dangerous of them all -- apart from the original Wuhan strain-- is the US strain (Epsilon) which has the slowest transmission rate.

According to the Department of Medical Sciences, the presence of the coronavirus strains in Thailand is as follows: 88.9% for Alpha (Britain), 10.4% for Delta (India), and 0.6% for Beta (South African).

A prominent doctor predicted the Delta strain will take over Thailand within 2-3 months. This is not surprising as Darwin's law of natural selection says stronger species will take over weaker ones. Research in England shows the Delta strain can spread 67% faster than the Alpha strain.

Third, the effectiveness of a one-shot vaccine. Most vaccines require two shots to be fully effective. It is well known that the first shot of Sinovac is as good as getting a vitamin shot. From studies by Public Health England and the world-renowned Pasteur Institute of France, one dose of AstraZeneca has almost no power to protect against the Delta strain while one shot of Pfizer provides 32% protection against the strain. Protective power significantly improved after two shots.

In light of the possibility that the Delta strain will dominate the world, doctors agree that two shots of a vaccine seem necessary.

Four, the speed of inoculation. To achieve the one-dose target by mid-October, we need to inoculate 376,029 people per day. And to achieve the two-dose target by year-end, we need to inoculate 470,971 people per day. Average actual inoculation in the past two weeks is a little less than 250,000 people per day.

I do not see how the government can overcome these obstacles. Therefore, I can only conclude that opening up the country is most unlikely in October. At a minimum, Thai citizens will need two shots of quality vaccines before such an event can happen which means the earliest date is Jan 1, 2022.

With the light at the end of the tunnel growing dimmer by the day, does the government have a Plan B for the economy? If the government is unable to revive the economy, how about just stabilising it. May I suggest the idea of "Economic Hibernation" while we are waiting for the right time to open up the country? This is not a crazy idea. Even the World Bank has an article about it.

I shall write more about the subject in due course.

Chartchai Parasuk

Freelance economist

Chartchai Parasuk, PhD, is a freelance economist.

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