BANGKOK — Thailand’s ambitious plan to vaccinate its population against COVID-19 already ran into a delay, while a new virus fatality and more than 800 fresh infections were reported on Wednesday.
Registration for the first doses, which was previously slated to open within this month, is now pushed back to Feb. 12, the government said – or just two days before the jabs are supposed to be rolled out. Officials have yet to figure out how people can sign up for the vaccine either.
“Frontline health workers in high-risk areas will be able to register through the application ‘Mhor Prom’ on Feb. 12. As for the members of the public, we’re still deliberating on the appropriate channels for registration,” Health Ministry perm sec Sophon Mekthon told reporters on Tuesday.
The delay highlights the uncertain nature of the inoculation drive, which aims to cover at least 60 percent of the population.
Nothing seems to be set in stone as of Wednesday, with just several weeks to go before the campaign begins. For instance, the government has said the first shipment of vaccine to be used in the initial phase would be provided by China-based Sinovac. But the regulators haven’t yet granted approval for Sinovac. The first doses will be provided by British pharmaceutical AstraZeneca instead.
“The first vaccine coming in will be AstraZeneca, because we’re still waiting for Sinovac to be registered,” public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul said on Jan. 20.
“The first vaccine shot in Thailand will be AstraZeneca,” he went on. “That’s good, because it’s the same brand, same solution as the one that’s being produced in Thailand by Siam Bioscience.”
Siam Bioscience is a private firm wholly owned by the Crown Property Bureau. It has been tasked with producing up to 61 million doses of vaccine developed by AstraZeneca for the population, even though the company has no prior experience in making vaccines, let alone a production on such a vast scale.
The production timeline itself is a source of confusion. A senior health official initially said in November that Siam Bioscience would not be making the doses in the next six months.
“It is estimated that six months from now, production will begin, and [the vaccine] will be registered with the Food and Drug Administration,” National Vaccine Institute director Nakorn Premsri was quoted as saying on Nov. 24, upon the signing of agreement between Siam Bioscience and AstraZeneca.
Yet less than two months later, on Jan. 3, Siam Bioscience and government officials said the production already began in December.
A statement released by the company on Jan. 25 said its facilities have advanced technology capable of making the AstraZeneca doses, but made no mention of whether the production has already started.
“Siam Bioscience is immensely proud to have been chosen by AstraZeneca as its technology transfer and manufacturing partner for the COVID-19 vaccine as it meets the international standards required,” the statement said.
“For the well-being of people and the economy, both in Thailand and the region, having decided to drastically alter its manufacturing plan in order to pour all available resources and efforts into manufacturing the vaccine as specified by AstraZeneca as expeditiously as possible, Siam Bioscience staff are working tirelessly, competing against time.”
In calls placed to Siam Bioscience on Wednesday, an operator said public relations employees were currently working from home and were not available to answer questions about the vaccine production.
Thailand recorded 819 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday with 714 of them found in Samut Sakhon province through active case-finding operations.
One more person also died from COVID-19. The victim was identified as a 56-year-old Thai man in Samut Sakhon who had suffered a stroke, bringing the national death toll to 76.
Health officials say active-case finding effort in high-risk provinces will run until Feb. 15. These operations are responsible for detecting a majority of new infections reported in recent days, including 914 on Monday.
Who Gets What, and When
The government on Tuesday also announced its timeline for the vaccination drive, dividing it into three phases. Each person will need two doses for an effective protection against COVID-19. Those under 18 and pregnant women will not be eligible for the vaccines as of now.
Phase 1 will run from February to April, focusing on vulnerable populations living in five provinces hardest hit by the virus and frontline healthcare workers.
According to the government, this phase will cover precisely 19,014,154 people. They include 1,700,000 frontline healthcare workers, 6,163,095 people with pre-existing medical conditions deemed to be at risk, and 11,136,059 people over 60.
This second at-risk group is said to cover 4.8 million people living with diabetes, as well as 253,159 people with respiratory disease, 350,922 people with heart disease, 150,000 with kidney disease, 355,671 people prone to strokes, and 253,343 people with cancer.
Phase 2, from May to December, will expand to vulnerable groups in the rest of the country.
The last stage, Phase 3, is for the general public. It won’t start until January 2022, health officials said.
All told, the three stages would use up to 61 million doses from AstraZeneca and 2 million from Sinovac.
Public health minister Anutin said the combined doses will inoculate 31.5 million people, or 63 percent of the population, which he said is a “sufficient amount to develop an immunity for Thais.”