Thanathorn under fire for jumping vaccine queue

Thanathorn under fire for jumping vaccine queue

Health minister concedes tycoon's right to shot after social media storm

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit

Progressive Movement founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who has found himself in hot water amid allegations he jumped the queue to get his first dose of vaccine, has threatened lawsuits against anyone who tries to run his name through the mud.

The issue goes all the way back to Jan 18 last year when Mr Thanathorn hosted a controversial Facebook Live session in which he took the government to task for being too reliant on Siam Bioscience to meet its vaccination needs.

Siam Bioscience, a pharmaceutical firm founded by His Majesty King Rama IX some 12 years ago, received the right to produce AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine in Thailand, under a technology-transfer agreement.

The session, titled "Royal Vaccine: Who Benefits and Who Doesn't?" urged the government and the firm to reveal details of the procurement to prove the process was being carried out in an even-handed manner.

Following Mr Thanathorn's comments, the firm insisted it was selected because it met AstraZeneca's stringent production criteria. In March last year, the Progressive founder was charged with offending the monarchy in the video.

Siam Bioscience was founded by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great with the purpose of producing medicine using high technology that would be made available to people at modest prices.

Mr Thanathorn compared the government ordering AstraZeneca from Siam Bioscience to betting on a single horse. He added the company had won the contract despite operating at a loss. The Progressive chairman questioned whether or not the government had struck the deal to benefit a certain firm at the expense of the people.

After that, youth-led protesters rallied outside the Siam Bioscience company. They and Mr Thanathorn's supporters rejected the AstraZeneca vaccine and called for the government to procure a formula manufactured using mRNA technology instead.

Mr Thanathorn's stand against AstraZeneca came back to haunt him after he returned from an overseas trip at the beginning of this year and announced he had contracted Covid-19.

Shortly after, his medical records leaked onto social media revealing he had received AstraZeneca for his first dose at 7.15 pm on July 1 last year.

He immediately came under attack from opponents who labelled him a hypocrite and also questioned how he managed to be vaccinated at a time when appointments were reserved for the elderly and those with underlying illnesses.

The underlying accusation was that he had taken advantage of his wealth and privilege to get the shot. Phra Samut Chedi Sawatyanon Hospital in Samut Prakan later confirmed the politician had his first jab there.

Mr Thanathorn's medical record split his supporters in the youth-led anti-government groups. Some contended it was unacceptable if Mr Thananthorn had indeed jumped the queue to get his jab.

Privilege not a factor

Dr Jomthep Wangsantitrakul, director of Phra Samut Chedi Sawatyanon Hospital, said he was baffled as to why Mr Thanathorn's case had been played up. He insisted the process of offering the vaccine was above-board.

He said the hospital has been operating under Public Health Ministry instructions to roll out as much vaccine as possible via both walk-in and appointment methods.

Dr Jomthep said he had no idea how Mr Thanathorn came to be informed of the availability of the AstraZeneca vaccine at the hospital after he asked to be made aware when he could receive an appointment. On July 1, hospital staff called the politician to come in for his jab. Checks confirmed Mr Thanathorn was listed among the hospital's vaccine recipients.

The hospital director also said that one vial of AstraZeneca was enough to immunise six people but that the efficacy of the shots deteriorates after six hours of a vial having been opened. "That is why the hospital rushed to jab as many people as possible so the vaccine would not go to waste," he said.

The reason Mr Thanathorn was jabbed in the evening outside normal working hours may be because he had to make the trip to the hospital. Also, several other people were vaccinated that evening.

Harirak Sutabutr, former rector of Thammasat University, noted on his Facebook page Mr Thanathorn was administered the vaccine during the period when it was not available to non-medical personnel of his age.

Smear campaign

Meanwhile, Mr Thanathorn said he has been the victim of a smear campaign and vowed legal action against the perpetrators.

He slammed dictatorial right-wing elements for exposing confidential information about his vaccination.

He insisted that during July, a large number of people who were not elderly or suffering from underlying ailments were receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine in Bangkok and surrounding provinces. "I most certainly did not snatch the vaccine away from the elderly," he said, referring to accusation against him.

Mr Thanathorn added he was vaccinated in Samut Prakan because his home in Bangkok is on the border with Samut Prakan and there was no law against someone from outside the province getting vaccinated.

He said he was offered a vaccine that was left over from the day and would otherwise have gone to waste and denied knowing the hospital director personally.

Mr Thanathorn also contended that he had never dissuaded anyone to get vaccinated.

"I've put up with their challenges and these deplorable accusations, coupled with an information operation by the government and a certain political party, only serve to sow the seeds of hatred among people. I'm not alone in being attacked here," he said.

Mr Thanathorn said he will sue his opponents for bringing his name into disrepute, as well as the state agencies involved, to deter the leaking of personal information as a tactic to discredit opponents of the status quo.

System vulnerable to abuse

Responding to Mr Thanathorn's remarks, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said no personal health or medical record had been released by government officials without a patient's consent.

He also denied details had been politicised to instigate a witchhunt against a political opponent. "When it comes to vaccination, everyone is on the same side," the minister said.

"Although there had been no malicious leak, the truth is that the information is actually not especially secret or classified," Mr Anutin said, adding anyone can access patient details held in the national database by keying in their 13-digit citizenship number on a dedicated website.

Mr Anutin added Mr Thanathorn should not have been put on the spot and accused of abusing his "status" to receive his vaccine, as appointments had been open to the public from May onwards.

Dr Wayo Assawarungrueng, a Move Forward Party list MP, said he was distressed by Mr Anutin's explanation which appeared to overlook the importance of safeguarding personal information.

Section 7 of the National Health Act bars the disclosure of a person's health record unless specifically given permission by the owner.

The revelation of Mr Thanathorn's vaccination record was likely not just an act of negligence as it showed an outright intent to cause his reputation harm. The Administrative Court should be petitioned to authorise a ban on the use of citizenship numbers to access such personal information, added Dr Wayo.

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