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AstraZeneca Rethinks Thailand Vaccine Plans Amid Gov’t Prosecution of Covid-19 Critic

Generals may have imperiled country's entire vaccination plan with rabid pursuit of pro-democracy activist for questioning royal role in vaccine rollout

AstraZeneca Coronavirus Covid-19 Vaccine Vials Bottles

Thailand’s main supplier of coronavirus vaccine is rethinking plans to manufacture its drug here following the politically motivated prosecution of opposition leader for criticizing the vaccination plan.

Friday was expected to be a milestone in Thailand’s battle against Covid-19, with Thai officials and executives U.K.’s AstraZeneca Plc. hailing regulatory approval of its coronavirus vaccine. Instead, the news conference was abruptly canceled with the Matichon newspaper reporting that the British-Swedish firm was reconsidering its partnership with the government.

AstraZeneca executives were said to be unhappy that, on Wednesday, the Digital Economy and Society Ministry filed lese majeste charges against Progressive Movement leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, accusing him of defaming the monarchy in Facebook comments about the government’s Covid-19 vaccination plan.

Thanathorn criticized the government for its slowness in procuring sufficient numbers of vaccine doses for the entire country and was not transparent about the contracts to purchase and locally manufacture its drug with palace-owned Siam Bioscience Group had been negotiated.

He alleged collusion in negotiating the no-bid contract, that no real consideration was given to vaccines from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc., and that taxpayer money may have been wasted.

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Thailand has ordered 61 million doses of the AstraZeneca two-dose vaccine – enough for about half of the population – along with two million doses from China’s Sinovac Biotcech. The first 50,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were to arrive next month along with the Chinese vaccine.

Nakorn Premsri, director of the National Vaccine Institute, called Thanathorn’s accusation “baseless and inaccurate” and echoed the Prime Minister’s Office accusations that they slandered the monarchy, as Siam Bioscience is a wholly owned unit of the Crown Property Bureau.

Nakorn said Siam Bioscience “obvious” choice of many companies considered for technology transfer from AstraZeneca which planned to manufacture 200 million vaccine doses a year in Pathum Thani. Only a small faction of those doses would remain in Thailand with the rest destined for export.

The government said the partnership was such up as a not-for-profit operation.

AstraZeneca, however, has no desire to be dragged into combative Thai politics and, if the former generals want to continue their persecution of a pro-democracy leader, they’re just as happy to find another partner and another country to do business in, Matchicon’s report claimed.

AstraZeneca has not commented publicly on the controversy.

Should the British-Swedish partnership pull out, it would throw Thailand’s entire vaccination plan – and indeed its economic recovery plan – into disarray.

The plan called for the first lot of 50,000 AstraZeneca doses to arrive within two weeks with 50,000 more doses a month arriving in each of the next two months.

It had been expected that Sinovac’s CoronaVac would be the first vaccine deployed to medical workers and high-risk groups. But news that the Chinese vaccine had proved just 50.4% effective in a large Brazilian trial prompted Thailand to hit the brakes, saying it will not use CoronaVac until China’s own health ministry approves it, which it has not.

Thailand has been ridiculously slow out of the gates in its vaccination efforts. Indonesia, by comparision, already has begun one of the world’s largest campaigns and Singapore expects to have its entire population vaccinated by the fall.

In Thailand, meanwhile, there is no sign a significant number of people will be vaccinated by summer.

If the government wants to fulfil its plan to inoculate 33 million people, it will have to deliver 313,000 jabs daily between June and December. Also, inoculating half of the population will require about 66 million doses as each person needs two shots.

Once they have arrived, the vaccines will be transported in temperature-controlled conditions to some 11,000 state and private hospitals, so people can get shots near their homes.

Medical personnel will be trained on vaccine storage, injection and service preparation. A smartphone application will also be developed to use to make appointments and proof of vaccination.