During its eight-month streak with only a handful of local coronavirus cases, Thailand appeared in no hurry to reserve any of the emerging Covid-19 vaccines. But after the widely predicted second wave finally hit, the kingdom quickly discovered that the vaccines it now desperately wanted were in scarce supply.
Before December, Thailand had pre-ordered only 33 million doses of the vaccine from U.K.-based AstraZeneca Plc, enough to immunize less than 17 million people. Like South Korea and Japan, the government believed its methods to control the pandemic were successful and that the virus posed such a small local threat that officials were content to wait until world supplies increased and prices dropped.
That thinking exploded spectacularly in the faces of the former generals that run the country. Thailand is now gripped by its worst outbreak of the pandemic and the government now is scrambling to secure vaccines to begin an immunization campaign in February, instead of May, when the shots originally were expected to begin.
The problem is, however, is that nearly everyone else now is in line before Thailand.
Unable to secure doses of top-tier vaccines from AstraZeneca, Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc., the government turned to China, which is peddling a home-brewed vaccine from Sinovac Biotech Ltd. that has not received widespread, industry-standard clinical testing.
Initial studies of tiny sample groups in Brazil and Turkey showed the vaccine was 80-90 percent effective in preventing Covid-19 symptoms, but Brazil’s Butantan Institute said this week that full results of the trial showed the drug was just 50.4 percent effective.
Despite the disappointing results, which make the drug just barely qualified for approval by health agencies around the globe, Thailand’s Public Health Ministry said it plans to carry on with the Sinovac vaccinations next month when the first 200,000 doses are expected to be delivered.
Thailand’s Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve either the Sinovac or AstraZeneca drugs, although both have applied for registration.
To date, Thailand has secured only 63 million doses of vaccines, said ministry Permanent Secretary Kiattibhum Wongrajit. That’s only enough for less than half Thailand’s 66.5 million citizens, let alone its millions of foreign expats and migrant workers, as all the available vaccines require two doses.
Another 2 million doses of Sinovac’s vaccine will be imported in April, Kiattibhum while the first batch of 26 million AstraZeneca doses is due to arrive in May. Another 35 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine is will come later.
By its inaction last year, Thailand now lags its regional rivals. Singapore started inoculations in December while Indonesia is set to began its vaccination program Wednesday.
Indonesia, with a population of 270 million, has so far managed to secure 229 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines from Sinovac, Novavax and global vaccine program COVAX. The health ministry has set a target of vaccinating 181 million of Indonesia’s 270 million people in 12 months.
Thailand reported 271 new cases on Thursday, bringing the total number of infections to 11,262. The tally included 181 local cases with the rest among overseas arrivals and testing of migrant workers. The country’s death toll also jumped by two to 69.
The rise in infections has increased pressure on the government to secure more doses as well as provide a clear outline of its vaccination program to the public.
Thailand’s own vaccine development program is struggling to raise funds. Chulalongkorn University partnered with pharmaceutical startup Baiya Phytopharm to develop a vaccine and start human trials in the middle of the year, with the goal now to have a drug available by this fall.
However, Chulalongkorn President Bandit Euaporn said it needs around another 500 million baht to develop and distribute the vaccine and actually is soliciting donations from the public.
The “Team Thailand” campaign asks a million Thais to each donate 500 baht. So far, only around 100,000 people have donated and critics said the government should be footing the bill. The university responded by allowing people to donate more than 500 baht.