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Govt under pressure as questions raised over its wisdom and transparency in vaccine deals

Jan 24. 2021
 Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha /File photo
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha /File photo
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By Wichit Chaitrong
The Nation

An adviser to the prime minister has defended the government's vaccine deal after it came under fire from critics.

Somchai Jitsuchon, an adviser to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on the economy, posted on his Facebook account that the government had considered many vaccine deal options, such as from whom it should buy, when, the quantity, or whether it should  opt for manufacturing in the country. 

"The pros and cons of each option were weighed, given Thailand's context and capacity for manufacturing vaccines, as well as the magnitude and pattern of the outbreak," Somchai, who is also research director at Thailand Development Research Institute, said in his post on Sunday.

"These factors have led to two parallel strategies -- promoting vaccine development and manufacturing locally, and buying vaccine from abroad," he said.

The government had contacted many vaccine developers from the time those firms started trials of their vaccines, he said.

He explained that if Thailand had decided to book a vaccine from any firm during the trial period, there was a risk of losing the money if that vaccine development failed. Also, at that time the virus outbreak in Thailand was not as severe as in many other countries. Therefore, Thailand's urgency to acquire a vaccine and innoculation, was less than that of other countries, he said. By waiting, Thailand could monitor which vaccine was effective and safe, from the experience of countries which needed mass vaccination urgently.

The rising price of raw materials to make vaccines also has caused the prices to go up, he said.

He acknowledged that a delay in placing an order could result in higher prices because booking at the earlier stage gives the developers funds for their vaccines, and the countries booking the vaccines first took obvious risks.

Thailand is lucky because the country has booked a large quantity of vaccine doses from AstraZeneca whose vaccine is priced much cheaper than some other companies and even China’s vaccine, he said.

Somchai conceded that he did not know much about why Siam Bioscience Co was picked as local vaccine manufacturer for AstraZeneca. There is no evidence that the company gets privileges and so trying to link it with political motivation might be jumping to a wrong conclusion. There are many reasons why this company was chosen, he said.

The strategy of development and manufacturing vaccine in the country continues and several state agencies and private firms have got financial support from the government. The project will benefit in the medium and long- term irrespective of whether Thailand could succeed in manufacturing a Covid vaccine or not, because at least it would increase Thailand's potential to produce vaccine in the future, he added.

Somchai's comments come after Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, former leader of the now-disbanded Future Forward Party, on January 18 questioned the vaccine deals and asked why the royal-linked Siam Bioscience Co was picked as local vaccine manufacturer and getting funding support from taxpayers money. His comment landed him in trouble, as the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society  filed a legal charge against him, accusing Thanathorn of insulting the King. If convicted he could be jailed for up to 15 years.

Regarding the lese majeste case, Somchai said that he has never agreed with the use of the lese majeste charge against critics in most cases.

After Thanathorn raised questions about the government's vaccine deals, many netizens have voiced their support for his demand that the government disclose the vaccine deals to the public.

Sarinee Achavnuntakul, an outspoken critic of the government, posted on her Facebook account on Friday that in principle the government should make vaccine deals with multiple brands in order to diversify risks, as many other countries have done.

The Thai government, as of late January this year, had placed purchase orders with only two vaccine brands -- AstraZeneca from England and Sinovac from China. She asked why the government had not placed orders with other vaccine brands when their vaccine developments had progressed far ahead and many countries had already implemented mass vaccination? Pfizer had proposed to sell its vaccine to the Thai government. Why did the government turn down the Pfizer’s proposal?, she asked.

Thailand’s neighbouring country, Malaysia, and Indonesia, had ordered Pfizer's vaccine.

If the Thai government was worried about logistics for the Pfizer vaccine, as it has to be kept under minus 70 degrees Celsius temperature, then how is Indonesia, which has several thousands of islands, dealing with the challenge of logistics?, she asked.

She argued further that in principle faster vaccination would mean faster reopening of the country, leading to faster economic recovery. She asked why the government had delayed private hospitals from importing vaccines? She also raised the issue of why the Food and Drug Administration was taking too much time to authorise administration of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, raising suspicions of market monopoly for AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines.

Regarding the manufacture of vaccine, the government had allocated a budget of Bt1.4 billion to support one private firm, which will manufacture the vaccine. This is unusual, she said.

She also raised questions about the Bt6.1-billion contract the government had signed with AstraZeneca last year, posing why the contact included cost of managing the vaccine project worth over Bt2 billion. She urged reporters to use the authority of the Official Information Act to seek a full disclosure of the contract from the government.

As of Sunday afternoon, her post drew 4,100 likes, 252 comments and 1,400 shares.

The Thai government ordered its first batch of 26 million doses from AstraZeneca and is negotiating to buy 65 million more doses, and has also ordered 2 million doses from Sinovac.

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