BANGKOK — The government on Tuesday defended its vaccination program as “the best choice” for Thailand amid renewed criticism from an opposition leader that the doses will only be enough for a fifth of the population.
In an open letter to politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who has raised doubts over the vaccine deals in recent days, public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul said that the decisions to secure AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines against COVID-19 were made by medical experts and appropriate to the outbreak situation in Thailand.
“Speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Health and National Vaccine Institute, I say that our work is not delayed or lagging as Thanathorn has accused us of,” Anutin wrote. “We act according to the calculations of medical experts who consider the national situation and citizens’ safety.”
“Let me confirm that the purchase of 61 million AstraZeneca doses and 2 million Sinovac doses are the best choice for Thais and Thailand.”
The cordial tone of the open letter is a highly unusual gesture from the government, whose responses to criticism in the past rely on deflecting the blames and slapping its critics with legal retaliation.
Just last week, Anutin accused Thanathorn of disloyalty to the monarchy by questioning the transparency in the vaccine procurement process. Government officials also filed charges of royal defamation against Thanathorn, who led the Future Forward Party until its dissolution in early 2020.
Thailand’s long-awaited vaccination campaign is said to begin on Valentine’s Day. The first group to be inoculated will be frontline health workers and government leaders, using imported 200,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, health officials said.
The first shipment of the 2 million Sinovac vaccines will also come in February. Thailand will produce their own AstraZeneca vaccines through an agreement with Siam Bioscience, a company wholly owned by the palace. Production of the 61 million shots will reportedly start in May.
Enough is Enough?
In a series of speeches and Facebook posts, Thanathorn warned that the total doses will account for only about 21 percent of the population, and questioned why the government allowed for such a shortfall.
But Anutin maintained that the number is sufficient under Thailand’s strategy to contain the disease.
“The National Vaccine Institute has determined that this amount is suitable for Thailand’s situation, where there are no heavy outbreaks or large amounts of infected patients or deaths,” Anutin wrote.
“This is different from other countries who must quickly distribute vaccines despite the risk of side effects.”
Anutin said the production of 61 million AstraZeneca doses – 26 million in the first “phase” and 35 million in the second phase for the general public – when added with the 2 million Sinovac doses, will be used to inoculate 31.5 million people, or 63 percent of the population.
“This is a sufficient amount to create immunization for Thais,” he wrote. “The price of vaccines is also expected to go down, and we will be able to save a large amount of the budget.”
Those under 18 and pregnant women will not be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.
Tawee Chotpitayasunondh, an expert at the National Communicable Disease Committee, also said that the government has ongoing discussions with other vaccine companies to secure enough for the population.
“Let me ask you, do you believe those numbers he said during that live?” Tawee said by phone Tuesday. “He talked about the vaccine agreements we already signed. But you have to understand that we have ongoing agreements. We aren’t finished making agreements for vaccines yet.”
He added, “Of course we will get more vaccines. The agreements, the information on them, is changing every day.”
In the open letter, Anutin insisted that the agreement with AstraZeneca saved considerable amounts of taxpayer money, since the company sells its doses at a lower price than other sources, including the World Health Organization’s COVAX program.
“Khun Thanathorn, you are a businessman who has done business negotiations with foreign companies, so surely you understand,” Anutin wrote.