BANGKOK — It’s been nearly three months since Siam Bioscience struck a technology sharing deal with AstraZeneca to make coronavirus vaccines in Thailand, yet not a single photo of the production line was ever released to the public.
Despite its prominent role as the sole producer of vaccine against COVID-19 in the kingdom, Siam Bioscience continues to wrap itself in a shroud of mystery, even as calls for greater transparency are growing.
A representative of the company appeared only once during a news conference held at the public health ministry last month, after which all the questions for the company were answered by government officials. No media tour was ever allowed inside its facilities to see the vaccine being made either.
“We want to focus on the production of vaccines for now,” Siam Bioscience’s managing director Songpon Deechongkit said in an interview Friday, when asked why there’s a need for such secrecy.
Songpon also turned down Khaosod English’s request to visit Siam Bioscience’s factory for the vaccine. He said the plant is currently off limits to the media since all personnel are preoccupied by their responsibility to meet the deadline.
“We are not able to accommodate media requests at the moment,” Songpon said by phone.
Siam Bioscience’s no-media policy is a notable exception in Thailand, where every major project undertaken by government agencies and private companies is shown to reporters for promotional purposes, from new train stations to river cleanups.
It also highlights the persistent obscurity in the government’s plans for the vaccine drive against COVID-19. No one knows exactly when the first shot will be made, or why the government pins almost all of its hope on Siam Bioscience – a small firm that had no previous experience of manufacturing a vaccine.
The country’s vaccine strategy relies mostly on AstraZeneca vaccines being produced by Siam Bioscience under a technology sharing deal that was signed at the Government House in November.
Siam Bioscience is wholly owned by the palace, as underscored by the formal signing ceremony on Nov. 27, which was attended by PM Prayut Chan-o-cha and representatives from the Royal Household Bureau.
The company is expected to produce 26 million doses that are set to be used in public inoculations starting in June. Songpon said the first batch of production already began at the company’s factory in Nonthaburi’s Bang Yai district in December, and the second batch is currently underway.
“Once we complete the fifth batch of production, we will submit the results to the Food and Drug Administration for approval,” Songpon said.
Due to the ban on media access to the production plant, there is virtually no way to independently verify the claim.
The last time the media corps was allowed to set foot inside Siam Bioscience’s facility was in June, when health minister Anutin Charnvirakul visited to inspect the manufacture of COVID-19 screening kits. But that was months before the vaccine production was supposed to start.
The company’s website said officials from several organizations, including the Thai Red Cross and the National Health Security Office, have been touring the vaccine factory over the past few months, but there were little details.
For instance, the Red Cross visit was logged in late January with only several photos, and nothing else. The same goes for the visit by the National Health Security Office in November. Neither shows any production line or equipment for the vaccine production.
The scarcity of information has fed skepticism over the company’s ambitious goal.
“I think they couldn’t make it. They’re so new,” said Boon Vanasin, the owner of Thonburi, a private hospital chain. “The production of vaccines is very complicated. I believe it will be delayed for at least three months.”
In a Facebook Live aired last month by opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, he questioned the government’s overconfidence Siam Bioscience as its sole supplier.
“Are we pinning too much hope on AstraZeneca and Siam Bioscience?” Thanathorn said in his broadcast. “Is this deal going to cost the country’s opportunity in considering other options which could help expand vaccine coverage and availability?”
The government’s response to Thanathorn was to file criminal charges against him, accusing him of “defaming the monarchy” and “distorting information.”
Per a request by the Division of Special Investigation, a court also ordered social media platforms to remove Thanathorn’s post, citing “breach of national security,” though the order was overturned on Monday.