Thailand to launch mass coronavirus vaccination drive as cases surge

Thailand will launch its Covid-19 immunisation programme on Monday, focused mostly on the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab produced at Siam Bioscience, a company owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn that has never previously produced a vaccine.

The rollout is a high-stakes one for both Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government, which faces growing anger from the public and business over delays in making vaccines available, and AstraZeneca, which chose Thailand as its south-east Asian production hub.

Siam Bioscience will produce 200m doses of the coronavirus jab, including for export. 

Thailand is contending with a surge in infections of about 2,000-4,000 reported new cases a day — the highest since the start of the pandemic. 

Like its regional peers Vietnam and Taiwan, the kingdom brought reported Covid-19 infections down to zero in 2020. The spike in cases has been blamed on more contagious variants of the coronavirus that have spread quickly through markets, prisons and worker camps.

But there have been signs of delays in production at Siam Bioscience. The Philippines said last week a first batch of 17m doses it was expecting from Thailand had been delayed and reduced in size.

Separately, Thailand’s Rural Doctors Society has alleged the government was importing 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from South Korea to make up for a production shortfall. Some Thais have reported being told they could expect vaccination appointments in June only to be advised later that they had been postponed.

The Thai government last week received delivery of 1.8m doses of the jab from AstraZeneca, the first of 6m vaccines scheduled to arrive this month. It insists the rollout is on schedule but a government spokesman declined to respond to a question from the Financial Times about whether it would be using imported jabs from South Korea alongside locally made ones. Siam Bioscience declined to comment and AstraZeneca’s Thai office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Thai Enquirer, an outspoken online publication, last week called Siam Bioscience an “international embarrassment”.

“Even the Serum Institute in India is having problems, so it would be wrong to expect everything with first-time producer Siam Bioscience to go as smooth as silk,” said Pavida Pananond, professor of international business at Thammasat Business School, referring to the Indian vaccine manufacturer. “But AstraZeneca could do a lot by being more upfront.” 

As infections surged early this year, the Thai government was accused of relying too much on a single vaccine made at a first-time vaccine producer. More recently, it has moved to shore up supplies of jabs from alternative suppliers including Sinovac, the Chinese pharmaceutical company, BioNTech/Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson, the US drugmaker. 

Thais’ freedom to criticise Siam Bioscience has been constrained by the fact that the billionaire king owns it, and making remarks deemed insulting to the royal family is a criminal offence.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Thailand’s most prominent opposition figure, was charged with lese-majesty and “computer crimes” in January after online comments about what he called the “royal vaccine”.

The 69-year-old Thai king’s power and wealth came under unusual criticism from participants in last year’s youth-led democracy protests.

Additional reporting by Ryn Jirenuwat in Bangkok

Follow on Twitter: @JohnReedwrites

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