BANGKOK — A health official on Wednesday contradicted health minister Anutin Charnvirakul on the potential date when the vaccination against COVID-19 will begin, the latest sign that the country’s inoculation drive is far from ready.
Tawee Chotpitayasunondh, an senior expert at the National Communicable Disease Committee, said the first shot of coronavirus vaccine will be administered “within this month” as soon as the first shipment of 50,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine arrive in Thailand – slightly sooner than the target date projected yesterday by Anutin.
“The vaccination program will go ahead as planned within this month,” Tawee said by phone Wednesday.
Anutin told reporters on Tuesday that the vaccination will not happen until March.
The health minister also asked his detractors to stop comparing Thailand with other countries who already received the jabs since he wanted to ensure that the vaccines are safe.
“It’s the same answer: March,” he replied when a reporter asked when the vaccine campaign will kick off.
He continued, “Those who like to say that other countries have received the vaccine should see that they got it because they agreed to use their citizens as test subjects. That will never happen to Thai people under this health minister. Imagine that if you received the shot and got Bell’s Palsy and muscle weakness, who will explain that?”
Anutin, who has no background in healthcare, did not cite any evidence to support his warning. Although the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention did report that cases of Bell’s Palsy were found during the clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccine, the rate of prevalence is not considered to be above the rate expected in the general population.
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Thailand is still waiting for the shipment of 50,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine to arrive from Italy, but it is unclear whether the vaccine will arrive this month as expected. The European Union has imposed vaccine export restrictions in response to the supply dispute between AstraZeneca and the EU.
The government previously floated the date of Feb. 14 to roll out vaccine against COVID-19. Anutin now distanced himself from that goal.
“I’ve never said the doses will be given out on Feb. 14,” Anutin told reporters on Wednesday.
He is correct – but it was one of his deputies, Sopon Mekthon, who came up with the lauch date at a conference on Jan. 25. Anutin presided over the meeting and did not dispute Sopon’s pledge to start the vaccination drive on Feb. 14.
Tawee from the National Communicable Disease Committee said health officials are currently pushing the supplier for the promised delivery date, though he admitted that the target date may go slightly out of plan if the dispute between AstraZeneca and the EU remains unresolved.
“It’s beyond our control,” Tawee said. “If it’s going to be delayed, it would probably be pushed back a few days, not as far as the end of this year. We are doing our best to solve the problem.”
He also said that the government will take responsibility for any deaths or disabilities that are proven to have occured from the vaccine.
“If they can be proven that the vaccine resulted in death or disabilities, the government will compensate the victims,” Tawee said. “It depends on each individual to take the vaccine or not, but the risk of getting infection is higher than the risk of adverse effects from the vaccine.”
According to the government, the first group of people to be immunized will be frontline healthcare workers and vulnerable populations such as those living with diabetes, obesity, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the provinces hardest hit by the virus.