Update: Director of the National Vaccine Institute also dismisses the report as false.
BANGKOK — Government officials on Monday cast doubt on a news report claiming that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs turned down an opportunity to buy 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine from India.
The report published by news website Thai Enquirer on Jan. 25 said India offered to sell 2 million doses of AstraZeneca-licensed vaccine to Thailand, but the proposal was “rejected outright” by foreign minister Don Pramudwinai. The story was challenged by both the government and the expert in charge of the national vaccine program.
“The news isn’t true,” government spokeswoman Traisuree Taisaranakul said by phone Monday.
Although Traisuree confirmed that India did offer to sell its locally manufactured vaccine to Thailand, the doses in question appear to have been developed by Indian pharmaceutical firm Bharat Biotech, and not AstraZeneca as claimed by Thai Enquirer. The matter is still under consideration, she said.
“What the foreign ministry was referring to is the vaccines from Bharat Biotech,” Traisuree said. “They want us to place an advance order, which we are currently waiting for more information.”
The foreign ministry said last week that it did not reject the offer either.
“I wish to clarify that the MFA received the offer through the Indian embassy in Bangkok,” spokesman Tanee Sangrat tweeted on Thursday. “We never turned down the offer, but in fact referred it to Thai agencies concerned.”
Tanee could not be reached for comment as of publication time, but in a followup tweet he mentioned that one of the “Thai agencies concerned” was the National Vaccine Institute.
The institute director, Nakorn Premsri, said on Tuesday morning that the offer was for India’s locally developed Covaxin vaccine, and not AstraZeneca. The offer is still under deliberation, and was never rejected out of hand, he said.
“It’s not true,” Nakorn said of the Thai Enquirer report. “We never received any offers for AstraZeneca vaccines from India. They only reached out to us for their Covaxin vaccine, which we are still looking into details. No offers have been made so far.”
Thai Enquirer cited unnamed sources within the Indian government as the basis for its story. The article did not mention the cost of the 2 million doses of vaccine offered by India.
Two types of vaccines are being manufactured locally in India: Covishield, which was developed by AstraZeneca, and Covaxin, a product of local pharma company Bharat Biotech.
Some shipments of Covishield were already shipped to countries like Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, and Bangladesh; either in forms of donations or commercial agreements.
Covaxin, the vaccine developed locally by Bharat Biotech, is said to be more controversial. Some experts have warned that the vaccine needs more studies, while the All India Drug Action Network said there were “intense concerns arising from the absence of the efficacy data.”
But Bharat Biotech defended its process, and India’s drug regulator was quoted as saying that Covaxin is “safe and provides a robust immune response.”
So Much Waiting, So Little Clarity
The government is currently waiting for the initial shipment of 50,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine to arrive from Italy within this month before the locally made version will be available at some point between May and June.
The rest of 150,000 imported doses are expected to follow in March and April.
It remains uncertain whether the first shipment will arrive, as Thailand is not exempted from the European Union’s vaccine export control. The restriction was announced Friday by Brussels in response to the vaccine supply dispute between AstraZeneca and the EU.
Thai officials have not even agreed on the date of the official launch of the country’s vaccination drive.
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said Sunday that the first shot will be administered “within this month,” though health minister Anutin Charnvirakul said earlier on Friday that it will not happen until March, since each batch of the incoming vaccines have to be inspected by health authorities first.
The delay and uncertainty over the vaccination campaign has prompted intense criticism from government critics in recent weeks. In response, the authorities filed a royal defamation charge against an opposition politician who demanded more transparency in the vaccine deals.
India, which is the world’s largest vaccine producer, has offered millions of Covishield doses to its neighboring South Asian countries as part of what analysts called “vaccine diplomacy” campaign that aimed to expand its influence in the region.
The country has pledged to donate 1.5 million doses of its AstraZeneca vaccine to Myanmar, where the first shot was administered to healthcare workers on Wednesday.