Is there a jab cover-up in Thailand?

Is there a jab cover-up in Thailand?

Elderly people flock to Bang Sue Grand Station for Covid-19 shots available for those aged 75 and over. They are allowed one family member or helper each to assist them during the vaccination process. (Photo: Nutthawat Wicheanbut)
Elderly people flock to Bang Sue Grand Station for Covid-19 shots available for those aged 75 and over. They are allowed one family member or helper each to assist them during the vaccination process. (Photo: Nutthawat Wicheanbut)

It has become common knowledge that Thailand's national vaccine plan is inadequate, full of loopholes, flip-flopping and even worse, and might not be enough to deal with the fluid threat and devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic effectively. But vaccine mismanagement no longer appears to be the root cause of Thailand's Covid-19 trials and tribulations.

There are three potentially related processes in motion that underpin Thailand's inadequate vaccine rollout. If all three are found to be at work, their profound and explosive implications and consequences will likely lead to an unprecedented political cataclysm.

First, at a minimum, Thailand's vaccine plan has been a policy blunder. After one full year of grappling with virus outbreaks and infections from early 2020, Thailand ended up with just two vaccines, the British-Swedish AstraZeneca and the China-made Sinovac. Myriad criticisms have been levelled at the Prayut Chan-o-cha government's decision to procure AstraZeneca in an exclusive licensing deal with local manufacturer, Siam Bioscience.

The policy blunder here is that AstraZeneca was set out late last year to be the country's primary vaccine. Betting on AstraZeneca as the main strategic vaccine, the authorities demurred from pursuing other well-known vaccines that neighbouring countries also had including Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna -- both US-made vaccines that subsequent clinical research showed as having more efficacy in dealing with virus mutations.

When Siam Bioscience -- as the licensed manufacturer of AstraZeneca -- fell behind in delivering the previously agreed amount, the government did not provide the public with a clear answer about why and on finding a new substitute. Sinovac -- a China-made vaccine -- suddenly became the substitute until so much of it, 14.5 million doses to date, was purchased and sent from China that it has turned out to be Thailand's primary vaccine.

Much has gone wrong within the realm of policy shortcomings. The lack of AstraZeneca, which is perceived as superior in efficacy to Sinovac, left people feeling short-changed.

Criteria for accessing both vaccines at different stages were subjective and decided in executive session rather than on objectives based on older age groups, frontline professionals, and vulnerable workers, as is practised in more advanced and fairer countries.

Apart from supply shortages, rollout has been slow and uneven. Access through internet applications, such as Mor Prom and Thai Ruam Jai, has been problematic and haphazard. When Sinopharm became the third vaccine that was suddenly purchased by the Chulabhorn Royal Academy (CRA) and delivered for local jabs at personal cost, the deal resulted in two-tier treatment with reports of some securing free jabs and others having to fork out 1,000 baht per shot.

As public outrage intensified, the Prayut-led cabinet finally relented and approved a proposal to buy 20 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech, and agreed to import an unspecified amount of Moderna on a commercial basis. People then started to question the government's shoddy vaccine strategy.

If these two globally popular US-made vaccines are worthy of purchase and import now, why did the government waste precious time by not stocking them earlier. At the cabinet meeting, another lot of 10.9 million Sinovac doses worth 6.1 billion baht was ordered, even though its relatively lower efficacy is shrouded in doubt.

Many other policy-related questions abound with few answers to meet them. Such a complete policy failure and breakdown is enough to undermine the government's stability. This is why the calls for Prime Minister Prayut's resignation are becoming louder.

The second set of question marks involve the possibility that perhaps there is more than meets the eye in Thailand's vaccine procurement.

The Sinovac vaccine is produced by China-based Sinovac Biotech; it has been reported by foreign media including the Washington Post, that its CEO bribed China's drug regulator for Sars and swine flu vaccine approval back in 2003-2006. The company, nevertheless, became a rising star for investment in biotech.

Hong Kong-listed Sino Biopharmaceutical, with CP Pharmaceutical Group as a shareholder, invested $515 million, giving it a 15% stake in Sinovac Life Sciences, the unit in charge of the Sinovac vaccine.

When Sinovac's efficacy is being questioned in Chile, Indonesia and elsewhere, where Sinovac-immunised people have contracted Covid variants, why has the Prayut cabinet kept ordering more and more of this Chinese vaccine instead of pursuing superior doses elsewhere?

How come the Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO), whose board members are associated with the Bhumjaithai Party under Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, seem hellbent on importing this vaccine, while seemingly being reluctant when it comes to procurement of the US-made vaccines that are reported to have more efficacy?

Could it be that American companies are regulated by their country's Foreign Corrupt Practices Act? These are valid questions when the Prayut government has gambled the country's public health on limited choices and is reluctant to acquire better alternatives.

Finally, as Thailand's Covid death toll rises steadily towards 3,000 and more people suffer untold hardships, the government's sordid policy and gross incompetence alone warrant its riddance.

But if there is fishy business involved, the possibility of criminal lawsuits must come into the picture. Are people dying and succumbing to the virus because of policy shenanigans?

To be sure, Thailand is not alone in suffering from the multiple crises of virus, variants, and vaccines.

Other countries that did well last year in virus containment, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have also seen case spikes in recent weeks.

But few countries are encountering Thailand's combination of doubtful policy, government mismanagement, and accused conflicts of interest, at the expense of public health and economic well-being.

Thailand no longer has a free and open space for the investigative journalism needed to reveal what's behind these vaccine suspicions and irregularities. Opposition politicians are doing some of it but much more muckraking is imperative.

The vaccine saga looks like a "vaccine-gate", full of questions with few answers so far. The more we know, the more we realise what we don't know and need to know.

Getting to the bottom of Thailand's vaccine crisis as the virus situation goes from bad to worse will likely compound the political rumblings seen and heard last year, confirming this country is indeed overdue for fundamental reforms.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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