BANGKOK — An order mandated by the central government this week bans local authorities and private hospitals from procuring their own coronavirus vaccine supplies, even as the fate of the national vaccination drive remains uncertain.
The decision by the Ministry of Interior Affairs came after several local governments announced their plan to secure the vaccine for their residents, namely in Phuket, where local officials hoped to open its doors to foreign tourists by October. The reopening plan is now delayed indefinitely due to the ban.
“It will definitely impact our plans,” president of Phuket Provincial Administration Organization Rewat Areerob said by phone Wednesday.
“We now have to wait for the central government to allocate the vaccines to us, but I have submitted a letter asking the health ministry to reserve more vaccine quota for us since we are a tourism province. We made a lot of money for the nation.”
Earlier this month, the mayor of Phuket City Municipality said it has set aside 45 million baht to buy the vaccines against COVID-19, while Patong Municipality said it will spend 30 million baht to inoculate its own residents.
Scores of local governments nationwide also followed suit. The Nonthaburi City Municipality announced it would use 300 million baht of its budget to buy coronavirus vaccines and cover its population of 260,000.
But in the order sent to provincial governors yesterday, the interior ministry says only the central government has the power to buy vaccines and manage the initial phase of the vaccination drive. The order cites the necessities to ensure that the doses are distributed to the desired population group and effectively monitor any adverse effects.
The same document also shot down the private sector’s plan to acquire their own stockpile of vaccines. Some private hospital chains had ordered millions doses of vaccines ahead of the government’s approval, which they hoped to inoculate their workforce – and patients who are willing to pay.
The order followed contradictory statements from key government officials. On Sunday, PM Prayut Chan-o-cha said in a government podcast that the private sector can import vaccines, as long as they have them registered with the Food and Drug Administration.
His pledge was overturned just days later by health minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who said on Tuesday that private hospitals can’t seek their own supply of coronavirus vaccines.
“They can’t buy it. The suppliers won’t sell it either,” Anutin said Tuesday. “Vaccines that were approved for emergency use can only be sold to the government.”
Anutin also contracted himself – the health minister said it himself earlier last month that local governments and private companies can contribute to the country’s vaccine drive against COVID-19.
“If local governments want to help the central government, they can submit their proposal to us for inspection,” Anutin said on Jan. 12. “If private hospitals have the capacity to pay for their own vaccines, they can register with the FDA. The health ministry is open to everyone’s initiative, but they must be safe.”
One prominent hospital magnate says confusing communications from the central government left him frustrated.
“I don’t understand why the government prevents us from buying our own vaccines,” Boon Vanasin, the owner of Thonburi Healthcare Group said in an interview.
“I was relieved when the Prime Minister said earlier that he wouldn’t block the private sector from importing vaccines, but then the health minister said yesterday that it would no longer be possible.”
Boon, who owns Thonburi private hospital chain, said the government had always been supportive of his plan to import one million doses of vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac. The tycoon also said has no intention of competing with the government’s effort to procure the vaccines, since he is doing it entirely out of his own pocket.
“It’s our own money,” Boon said. “We are trying to help the government because we are uncertain whether the vaccines will arrive as expected or the government will be able to reach the inoculation target of 50 percent of the population in time.”
“We can’t wait any longer since Thailand has to open the country as soon as possible.”
Thailand’s inoculation strategy relies mostly on AstraZeneca vaccines to be made locally by a Thai firm called Siam Bioscience, per a technology sharing agreement. The government said the first batch of 26 million doses produced by Siam Bioscience will be available by June.
The government has also ordered 2 million doses of Sinovac vaccine. Officials said the Chinese doses were due to arrive in January, but that hasn’t happened so far.