The government has defended its Covid-19 vaccine strategy after former Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit said it was too slow in procuring sufficient shots and inoculating the population.
Thailand will have enough shots to cover 50% of its nearly 70 million population this year and talks continue to secure additional doses, Supakit Sirilak, director general of medical science department at the Health Ministry, said at a briefing in Bangkok on Tuesday.
Authorities are preparing to rollout vaccines from next month which “isn’t much of a delay,” he said.
“We are evaluating information from all the vaccine manufacturers to find the best one,” Dr Supakit said. “We are not putting all our bets on one horse.”
The Health Ministry official was responding to criticism from former premier candidate Thanathorn, who said the vaccine procurement was “insufficient” and the country lagged behind many other countries in its rollout.
Many in Thailand are betting on wider availability of the vaccine to revive the tourism-reliant economy that’s been devastated by the pandemic. Authorities are battling a new wave of infections that’s seen total cases almost triple in the past month to more than 12,000. Mr Thanathorn said a faster vaccine rollout would have allowed the country to restore some normality.
“The sooner we can start the rollout and create herd immunity, the sooner tourists can return to Thailand, the sooner businesses can operate as usual, and the sooner people can live without fear,” he said in a live broadcast on Facebook. “The government is reckless and didn’t start early enough to find vaccines for its people.”
The government has so far approved plans to purchase a total of 63 million doses, including 26 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine to be produced locally by Siam Bioscience Ltd through a technology transfer and 2 million shots from China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. The National Vaccine Institute is in talks with several manufacturers for additional supplies for delivery as early as this quarter.
Mr Thanathorn made his comments on Facebook Live on Monday at an event titled "Royal Vaccine: Who Benefits and Who Doesn't?"
He made no accusations of impropriety against AstraZeneca but said royally-owned Siam Bioscience lacked vaccine-making experience and the government was relying on it too heavily.
Siam Bioscience's managing director, Songpon Deechongkit, declined to comment on the criticism.
"We want to focus on our responsibility to produce the vaccine in time, with quality, with the appropriate amount," Mr Songpon told Reuters.
AstraZeneca's representative in Thailand could not be reached.
"These baseless and inaccurate accusations shouldn’t be linked to the work of the institution we revere and love," said Nakorn Premsri, director of the National Vaccine Institute, referring to the monarchy.
He said that Siam Bioscience had been the most obvious choice of many companies considered for technology transfer from pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca to make 200 million vaccine doses each year for Thailand and other nations.
Deputy Premier and Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said the selection of Covid-19 vaccines and their authorisation for emergency use were not easy tasks. “Vaccines are important issues, especially Covid-19 vaccines which are new and needed to be used in emergencies. We must not politicise this issue,” he said on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a hashtag that translates as #royalvaccine was trending on Twitter in Thailand with more than 300,000 posts.
Asked about Mr Thanathorn's criticism, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told reporters: "It’s all distorted and not factual at all. I will order prosecution for anything false that gets published, whether in media or social media."