Opinion: Thailand’s Sinovac Dilemma

A man receives a dose of COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Khlong Toey community in Bangkok on May 9, 2021.
A man receives a dose of COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Khlong Toey community in Bangkok on May 9, 2021.

The government of Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha is facing double challenges in handling COVID-19. First, how to get enough vaccines in time before the situation is too critical, and second, how to convince enough people that Sinovac is a good and adequately safe vaccine.

Yes, Sinovac (known formally as CoronaVac) is the Chinese vaccine which has yet to have been approved by the World Health Organization!

Like it or not, the Thai government by the end of this month will have in its possession six million doses of Sinovac vaccines. The biggest lot, AstraZeneca, projected at 61 million doses by the end of the year is currently reserved for those 60 and older only.

Why the government bet on Sinovac is anyone’s guess, but many netizens have declared in droves over the past weeks their unwillingness to be inoculated with the Sinovac vaccine. Some are also skeptical about the promise that AstraZeneca is safe enough for the elderly.

This is happening while Thailand faces the most serious coronavirus outbreak since the first outbreak began early last year.

Among those trying to convince the public that it’s best to be inoculated as soon as possible, disregarding the vaccine maker, are not just medical experts and virologists, but the House Speaker Chuan Leekpai who joined the growing chorus on Thursday.

This reflects massive lack of confidence not just on Sinovac vaccines in Thailand, but of Thai government which ordered it and obtained some through donation by the Chinese government.

Although the Thai FDA approved the much-maligned Sinovac shot, the WHO has yet to make the final decision as the company has not published any data in academic journals – a norm in assessing its efficacy.

Some Thais even call Sinovac’s, “Shenzhen vaccine,” a reference to the city in Guangzhou province next to Hong Kong known by some for churning out fake brand-named products and cheap knock off.

Unless the public can be decidedly convinced to go with Sinovac first in order to help create herd immunity, no matter how imperfect, we may see no significant drop in the number of daily deaths and infections in the weeks and even few months ahead.

On Friday, spokesman of the government’s pandemic response center Taweesin Visanuyothin said that as many as 5 percent of Bangkokians could be infected by now. This is a speculation based on the percentage of people tested positive at various spots in the capital.

Actual population in Bangkok, which includes those not having home registration in the metropolis, is roughly 10 million and this means as many as 500,000 people in the capital could possibly be infected today.

This means we can hardly wait for a more reputable, reliable, and transparent vaccine because the attempt to create herd immunity has to begin now and not 6 months from now. The City Hall and all provinces are planning to introduce walk-in inoculation centers next month – if they can get vaccines first and manage the logistics that is.

On a personal note, as a Thai who is younger than 60, my choice now is either to take a one-month work leave and spend about 100,000 baht or so, to fly to some countries where you can get vaccinated with something more trustworthy than Sinovac, or get a Sinovac shot here, or not taking it at all and wait for other make to be provided by the Thai state.

I chose and declared earlier on my personal social media accounts that I will take Sinovac or whatever vaccines approved by the Thai authorities as soon as they are available because the death toll is now 30 or so people, and 2,000 plus new infections, per day. And the real figures must be even higher.

This is not because I have full confidence in Sinovac, but because as a member of a society, it’s my duty to try to contribute in creating herd immunity sooner than later given the state that we’re in.

While I may be able to afford to fly to Florida and get free Pfizer inoculation on the beach, what kind of message am I sending to the millions of other Thais below the age of 60 who cannot afford it? With good conscience I cannot do that.

So I will be here in Thailand, and take Sinovac or anything inferior to Pfizer’s, not because I support Prayut or happy with Sinovac, but because I hope that Thailand can move closer to realizing herd immunity sooner than later – despite the risks of side effects. I hope my fellow Thais who possess certain persuasion influence will do likewise and make it publicly known to create confidence.

Also, we should pressure the government to order less Sinovac and more trust-worthy vaccines from now. Please phase out, or stop ordering something that people cannot trust if you cannot make them trust it. What’s the point of ordering vaccines if people are not willing to be inoculated unless some politicians have been taking ‘tea money’.

We can blame Prayut. Actually, we should blame Prayut – for the bad planning and myopic decisions made but that alone won’t help create herd immunity sooner.

BTW, if the Thai authorities will eventually inject me with Sinovac and I live to tell, that’s a valid topic for another column. Please note that the survival rate is higher than driving upcountry from Bangkok.