Thailand today will sign the contract to purchase its first allocation of a Covid-19 vaccine that could be available in the kingdom by the middle of next year.
In a video clip posted to his Facebook page, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said the country will be able to begin reopening its borders to mass tourism at the same time as several vaccines become widely available globally.
Prayut defended the country’s ultra-strict virus-control and border measures, saying they have kept Thailand safe from the pandemic that is reaching new heights around the world, resurging even in countries like Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea which have done well in controlling the virus’ spread.
Prayut acknowledged, however, that Thailand has paid a high price for that safety with its economy in tatters and tourism industry generating only about 30 percent of its usual revenue.
Thailand has budgeted 6 billion baht for the purchase of a vaccine developed by the U.K.’s Oxford University and Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. Preliminary results from its Phase 3 trial of 11,000 people found it to be up to 90 percent effective, depending on dosage.
Questions, however, have arisen since those results were disclosed, with experts pointing to dosing errors and testing protocols that quickly have eroded confidence in the vaccine candidate and could lead to approval delays or outright denial.
Thailand’s agreement with AstraZeneca also includes provisions to actually manufacture and export the vaccine, if it does win approval. Manufacturing would be done by Siam BioScience Group in Pathum Thani.
The initial purchase, however, would only cover 13 million of more than 70 million people in Thailand. The country also plans to buy other vaccines as they become available.
“I made the decision for Thailand to seek to partner in vaccine production with an eminent vaccine research group as a way of securing a vaccine early,” Praut said. “We expect this vaccine to be properly certified, approved for use and in production by the middle of next year. The sooner we can advance this timetable, the sooner we can open our doors to large numbers of visitors and begin the task of rebuilding our economy.”
Siam BioScience believes it can manufacture 15 million doses of the vaccine a month, although Thailand would receive only 2 million of those. The rest would be exported.
Prayut noted that, unlike vaccine candidates from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc., the AstraZeneca solution is well-suited to Thailand as it can be stored at temperatures of 2-C degrees Celsius as opposed to very or super-cold temperaturs of up to -20 to -70 C for the other vaccines.
Dr Kiat Ruxrungtham of Chulalongkorn University’s vaccine-development project said Thailand still will need to purchase those other vaccines, however, which will pose a challenge for storage and distribution in the hot climate.
Even inoculating the initial 13 million people with the AstraZeneca doses – two per person – would be “unprecedented in Thailand”, said director of disease control Dr. Opas Kankawinphong.
“We need to make everything work, especially when it comes to creating awareness among the public,’ he said, adding that the government is budgeting 3.7 billion baht to transport and distribution of the vaccine once it’s delivered.
Who actually gets the first doses will be decided by the end of the year with priorities not disclosed until the program gets under way. As elsewhere, health workers and the elderly are expected to be at the top of the list.