Mixed jabs strategy adds to confusion
The delay in Thailand's AstraZeneca vaccine delivery plan is indeed a bad omen for the embattled Prayut Chan-o-cha government.
The unfortunate delay, which adds to the vaccine debacle, has shattered the public's expectation of having speedy relief from the Covid-19 pandemic that is killing so many and crippling the economy.
The pandemonium speaks volumes about the government's failure, not only of its vaccination plan, but also of its crisis management. It is sad to say that those in the Thai Khu Fah (Government House) Building have not learned anything since the first outbreak.
Take for example the plan to mix vaccines, proposed by renowned virus expert Dr Yong Poovorawan, who encourages the substitution of a second Sinovac jab with an AstraZeneca one. He was adamant that mixing Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines was safe and that doing so was Thailand's best option in the fight against the fast-spreading Delta variant as the kingdom waits for the alternative mRNA vaccines.
His proposal was quickly endorsed by the National Communicable Disease Committee, which is under the chairmanship of Deputy Prime Minister and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul. Hospitals were instructed to suspend second Sinovac jabs, and switch to AstraZeneca. Shortly after the announcement, the prime minister cautioned about the side effects of mixing vaccines, citing a statement by Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organization.
Suddenly, confusion reigns supreme.
The public is questioning the safety of mixing vaccines, and if there are any studies to support Dr Yong's proposal. Those who have received both Sinovac jabs are now wondering what they have to do next -- does this mean the Sinovac jabs were a waste?
Evidently, the government faces a crisis of confidence. The debacle is blamed on a flaw in its vaccination policy, as commented by critics who say the government has put all their "eggs in one basket" without a Plan B for the procurement of mRNA jabs. With the government's sluggish vaccination campaign, the number of infections and deaths are rising. Despite lockdown measures that put millions of people in hardship, new infections continue to soar, with 9,692 cases reported yesterday. It is an open secret that the real number of new infections could be much higher as some health institutes have halted testing.
Gen Prayut has now lost credibility like never before -- it seems no one takes him seriously. People are upset, if not angry, with his excuses. The army-chief-turned-politician has had a difficult time running the country and has to hide behind his doctors.
A lack of unity among those in medical circles over the mixing of vaccines also adds to the confusion. Dr Yong assures that doing so is safe, citing studies of 1,200 cases, while Prof Prasit Watanapa, dean of Siriraj Hospital's Medical Faculty, seems to throw half-hearted support behind the proposal, saying other studies are underway.
This is a disaster. Why didn't those involved in this "cross-vaccination" policy coordinate with one another before making such a crucial announcement? Why didn't the government assign the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration to speak to the public? Worse yet, a vaccine policy swap created much confusion among medical personnel. Some hospitals went back and forth in their vaccination plan, cancelling second Sinovac jabs and opting for AstraZeneca followups, only to suspend the entire vaccination plan. Meanwhile, other hospitals, like Udon Thani Hospital, said they would go ahead with the mixing of vaccines.
Finally, the Public Health Ministry said it would soon distribute a handbook for cross-vaccination. This move is tantamount to admitting that it has made a communication error. Such a mistake is not the first of its kind. Looking back, people are dumbfounded over abrupt changes in rollout plans, mostly without prior notice, such as the shift between walk-in and registration vaccinations; registration cancellations, the collapse of the "Mor Prom" app; and the way agencies blamed one another for vaccine shortages.
The situation is going from bad to worse as agencies try to steal the show, attempting to take political advantage amid uncertainty.
By working like amateurs, the government and state agencies have failed to synchronise their plans, and have issued confusing instructions and orders, as the public watches with frustration.
Despite a week of lockdown in 10 dark-red provinces, there is still no sign that the pandemic will be contained. The government will likely have to extend lockdown restrictions for at least another two weeks.
As if that is not bad enough, the public was informed of a delay in the delivery of 61 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses, which was scheduled for the end of the year but now has been pushed to May. In short, the promise of 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine per month, as pledged by the government, was just an illusion.
Such a delay is unacceptable. People can't help but ask what happened to the "special cooperation" between the government and the vaccine producer.
The Prayut government had bragged about a deal with British-Swedish AstraZeneca Plc as it provided a 600-million-baht subsidy to Siam BioScience, a local vaccine manufacturer.
With the threat of the Delta variant, several groups, including medical personnel and civic networks, are pressing for prompt procurement of mRNA vaccines, such as the ones produced by Pfizer and Moderna, and the revocation of all regulations that hinder the procurement process.
However, without a prior deal, we are told we have to wait until October for the first delivery of these mRNA vaccines. This is all because of a lack of vision in diversifying vaccine sources from the beginning.
Amid this vaccine chaos, coalition parties find it hard to look each other in the eye. There are quite a few rows going on between members of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party and their partners, like Bhumjaithai and the Democrats, as cracks widen.
At the same time, the opposition bloc has rolled up its sleeves for a no-confidence censure bid, while also filing complaints with the National Anti-Corruption Commission, accusing the government of mishandling the pandemic that has caused enormous damage to the country. Civic networks are seeking to grill the government over the purchase of the "useless" Sinovac vaccine, a move seen as a waste of state budget.
More importantly, with new infections and deaths still soaring despite lockdown measures, the government may be forced to extend restrictions for one or two months, deepening the economic misery as public hardship intensifies. If that time comes, many will question the PM's competence, and the government may find political upheavals -- such as a House dissolution -- inevitable.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.