Is Thailand’s bid to join global vaccine-sharing initiative too little, too late?

Medicine

Thailand is finally bidding to join the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) initiative after being hit by a critical shortage of effective vaccines at the height of its contagion crisis. Thai PBS World takes a closer look at the global vaccine initiative and ponders why Thailand is the only ASEAN nation not to join so far.

What is COVAX?

Directed by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and the World Health Organisation, COVAX is a worldwide initiative for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. Its goal is to provide enough doses for at least 20 per cent of each member country’s population.

COVAX attracted immense interest soon after launching. As of July 22, it had delivered 136 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to 136 countries. The aim of the initiative is both to procure the much-needed jabs and also ensure low-income countries like Laos have equal access.

ASEAN’s keen participation

All ASEAN nations except Thailand have joined COVAX. Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia joined as self-financing participants, while Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam joined under the Advance Market Commitment mechanism.

The Thai government, however, firmly stuck by its original COVID-19 vaccination plan – embracing locally produced AstraZeneca jabs as its main choice.

During a parliamentary debate last month, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said his government had decided against joining COVAX because Thailand was not qualified for free vaccines. He said the cost of vaccines bought via COVAX would be more expensive than direct purchase. Also, COVAX would not allow Thailand to choose the brand of vaccines.

Critics including Progressive Movement leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit have been questioning the government’s decision since January, but Thai authorities have maintained all along that their vaccination plan is solid.

Royally owned pharma company Siam Bioscience was last year licensed as the region’s production hub for AstraZeneca to supply the vaccine to Thailand and eight other countries in the region.

Thailand’s inoculation plan

Responding to a query from Thanathorn, Medical Sciences Department director-general Dr. Supakit Sirilak declared on January 19 that the government aimed to inoculate at least 50 percent of the Thai population this year.

Of the 50 percent, 20 percent would be vaccinated with AstraZeneca, 10 percent with other brands, and the remaining 20 percent possibly with jabs procured through COVAX.

“We are interested in COVAX, but the procurement of vaccines via the initiative is complicated,” Supakit said in January.

National Vaccine Institute director Dr. Nakorn Premsri, who was present at the same press conference, explained that the country’s capacity to store and administer vaccines was limited, meaning that all doses could not arrive at the same time.

At the time of the press conference, Thailand was suffering its second wave of COVID-19 infections, with just 12,594 cumulative cases, 70 deaths and 3,168 active cases.

What’s happening now?

Those figures have been dwarfed by the fourth wave, which has generated record highs day after day. On Thursday (July 22), new confirmed cases stood at 13,655 and deaths at 87. Accumulated cases have soared to 453,132 with 3,697 fatalities and 137,058 patients currently being treated.

The infection rate is being driven up by the highly contagious Delta variant, which is raging through many parts of the country, especially Bangkok. A partial lockdown has been enforced and about 17.84 percent of the population have had their first shot, but the outbreak shows no sign of abating.

Public anger is growing, with many saying that the crisis could have been averted if the government had launched its mass vaccination program sooner. The scheme kicked off on June 7 but quickly hit problems, including shortages of vaccine and low efficacy against Delta of the brands available.

Apology at last

On Wednesday, Dr. Nakorn issued a public apology for his institute’s failure “to procure enough doses for the Thai population”.

He also expressed regret that the vaccines administered so far did not respond to the situation as expected.

The government is providing AstraZeneca and Sinovac shots for free, though the Chulabhorn Royal Academy has sourced Sinopharm jabs for those willing to pay. Sinovac and Sinopharm are manufactured in China, and none of the three jabs available has been developed using mRNA technology, which has proved to be more effective against variants like Delta.

“We are in the process of joining COVAX through our ongoing negotiations with Gavi,” Nakorn said. “COVAX will help us procure our vaccine supplies next year.”

The Disease Control Department also announced that 20 million doses of Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine will be delivered in the last quarter of this year, though the contract was only signed earlier this month.

Source: Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS)