BANGKOK — A transparency activist on Monday demanded an investigation into whether the government is favoring large conglomerates in its bid to vaccine Thailand’s population against the coronavirus.
In a petition submitted by Srisuwan Janya to the Office of the Ombudsman, the campaigner said CP, one of Thailand’s largest corporations, has its hand deep in the sales and distribution of Chinese-made coronavirus vaccines and is therefore a potential conflict of interest – an allegation denied by CP.
Srisuwan said he had his concerns after news emerged that the vaccines developed by Beijing-based Sinovac Ltd, where CP recently acquired a 15 percent ownership, are set to be rolled out before the doses made by British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.
“Did the government give some benefits to Sinovac, since jao sua has stocks in it?” Srisuwan said by phone, using a term that refers to CP founder and tycoon Dhanin Chearavanont. “I’m suspicious as to whether there is some kind of connection behind that.”
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Thailand’s nationwide vaccination effort will be undertaken in three phases, according to the Department of Disease Control, starting with the 2 million Sinovac doses destined for “vulnerable groups” in Chonburi, Samut Sakhon, Trat, Rayong, and Chanthaburi.
The first 200,000 doses of Sinovac’s vaccines will be shipped by the end of February, 800,000 more in March, and the remaining million in April.
Phase 2 will vaccinate “vulnerable groups” in the rest of the country in May and June. Finally, the last phase will be to vaccinate the general public by early 2022. Phase 2 and 3 will use the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccines, which will be produced here in Thailand per a knowledge sharing agreement, according to health officials.
Srisuwan said that Sinovac coming first in the queue could delay AstraZeneca vaccines being rolled out, by government channels or otherwise.
“Private companies are ready to buy the vaccines now,” the gadfly said. “If this was allowed, then people with money can get vaccinated at hospitals, taking the load off of the government. So instead of vaccinating 60 million people, they may only have to vaccinate 40 million.”
Public Health Ministry perm sec Kiattiphum Wongrajit said on Monday the government has set aside a budget of 1 billion baht for the 2 million doses from Sinovac, meaning that each dose will cost about 500 baht.
The Chinese vaccine will be filed to the Food and Drug Administration for a formal approval on Feb. 14, Kiattiphum told reporters.
In a statement released to the media on Monday, CP said it spent 15 billion baht to buy 15 percent of stocks in Sinovac back in December to boost the company’s vaccine production capacity from 300 million doses per year, to 600 million.
CP has been running a pharmaceutical business in China since 2000 through its subsidiary, called Sino Biopharmaceutical. The company dismissed the accusations that CP would wield any influence over the vaccine campaign in Thailand through its partial ownership of Sinovac.
“Compared to [Sinovac]’s production capacity of 600 million doses for global distribution, Thailand’s purchase order of 2-million doses is merely 0.33 percent of the production capacity,” the statement said. “Therefore, it is not the reason behind CP’s investment.”
It added, “CP would like to affirm that this investment only grants Sino Biopharmaceutical a minority in shareholding, or only 15 percent, in Sinovac.”
“CP’s entry to pharmaceutical business is nothing new, because we’ve been working in the field for 22 years. We have manufactured and marketed medicines for hepatitis, and diseases related to the heart and brain, in China. Sino Biopharmaceutical’s revenues in 2019 were 4.2 billion yuan, or 112 billion baht. The investment in Sinovac Ltd. is a routine investment.”
Thailand also inked a 6 billion baht agreement that would allow a Thai company wholly owned by the Crown Property Bureau to produce 26 million doses of the coronavirus vaccines developed by British-based AstraZeneca.
If the government’s published information is to be believed, that’s about 230 baht per dose; the United States paid USD4 per shot, or 120 baht, from AstraZeneca. But a health official maintained that the price is already considered affordable for Thailand.
“Of course this is saving on costs since we are transferring technology from Astrazeneca to Siam Bioscience,” Supaporn Phumiamorn, Director of Institute of Biological Products at the Department of Medical Science, said by phone.
“After that we will be able to be a base of vaccine distribution in all of ASEAN.”
Supaporn said the vaccines will be available to the general Thai public for free, though the government has not discussed whether foreign residents or migrant workers will be eligible.
“The policy is to vaccinate Thais first,” she said. “But after the vaccines get certification from the Food and Drug Administration, then the government won’t stop private companies or hospitals from administering the vaccine.”
Srisuwan, the transparency activist, said he did not have any concerns about Siam Bioscience’s vaccines.
“I’m not worried at all, because it’s owned by the King,” he said.
Correction: The vaccine agreement between the Thailand and AstraZeneca was budgeted at 6 billion baht, not 600 million baht. We regret the error.