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Thailand begins mass Covid-19 vaccine rollout using shots made by royal-owned company

<i>Madaree Tohlala/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>
AFP via Getty Images
Madaree Tohlala/AFP/Getty Images

By Helen Regan and Kocha Olarn, CNN

Thailand began its mass Covid vaccination program Monday, following criticism of delays and concerns over health authorities relying on AstraZeneca shots produced by a company owned by the country’s king.

The Southeast Asian nation is battling a third coronavirus wave with the highest number of daily cases and deaths reported since the start of the pandemic, raising public concerns of adequate access to vaccines.

On Tuesday, Thailand reported 2,662 new Covid-19 cases and 28 deaths, according to its Covid-19 task force (CCSA).

Thailand plans to administer 6 million shots in June using the AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines, according to the country’s Public Relations department.

In the capital, Bangkok, on Monday, 25 vaccination stations were set up outside hospitals, malls, subway stations, gymnasiums, gas stations and university campuses.

In a letter to CNN on June 11, Thailand Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Tanee Sangrat said in the first three days of the mass inoculation drive, the country had administered more than one million doses.

“Thailand has always been committed to and acknowledged for providing timely disease control measures since the beginning of the pandemic,” Tanee said.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last month set a target of 100 million vaccine doses to be administered by the end of the year. Most of those — 61 million — are expected to be AstraZeneca doses produced locally by royal-owned company Siam BioScience.

The country has faced criticism from opposition leaders for being overly reliant on one supplier and over concerns of a lack of supply. Thailand wants to vaccinate 70% of the population by the end of the year, but so far only about 4% of its 69 million people have received at least one dose.

Reuters reported last week some hospitals had postponed vaccination appointments citing lack of doses, with one medical group saying the delay would affect nearly 40,000 people.

Meanwhile, the Philippines said on June 1 delivery of the first batches of an order of 17 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced by Siam BioScience was delayed and reduced, according to Reuters.

“The struggle to secure vaccines is not uniquely Thai, but a global one, particularly for developing countries,” foreign ministry spokesperson Tanee said. “No stones are left unturned to ensure Thailand has access to a diverse and sufficient supply of vaccines in coordination with the ministry of public health.”

AstraZeneca is working with Siam BioScience to produce and distribute vaccines across Southeast Asia. The vaccine will be ready for export to other countries in the region in July, a news release said.

Observing the rollout outside Bangkok’s Bang Sue Grand Station, Prime Minister Prayut sought to reassure the public there would be enough vaccines.

“People are concerned about Covid-19 vaccine arrangement. The government has not been ignoring that, concerned offices have been instructed to urgently negotiate to find more vaccines to every willing Thai,” he said.

Negotiations are ongoing for 20 million doses from Pfizer/BioNTech and 5 millions doses from Johnson & Johnson, according to a post on the government’s Facebook page.

But questions over public transparency and whether Siam BioScience can meet its production targets is a sensitive issue in Thailand. Founded in 2009, the biopharmaceuticals manufacturer is solely owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn and has not made vaccines before.

Thailand has some of the strictest lese majeste laws in the world where criticizing the king, queen, or heir apparent can result in a 15-year prison sentence.

In January, opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was charged with defaming the monarchy by the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society and later by a representative of the prime minister. In a Facebook Live stream, he questioned the government for moving slowly to secure enough vaccine doses. He also criticized the government for relying on just one vaccine supplier, AstraZeneca, which subsequently selected Siam BioScience, owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, to be their main producer in Southeast Asia last year.

A Thai court dropped the legal case against Thanathorn in January saying his comments about the royal-owned company were based on fact. However, another legal case against Thanathorn is still ongoing. Police Lieutenant Colonel Athich Donnanchai, of the Nang Loeng Metropolitan Police station, told CNN authorities are interviewing witnesses and aim to forward the case to the public prosecutor by the middle of June. Donnanchai confirmed to CNN that Thanathorn has been charged with lese majeste and under the computer crimes act based on the same Facebook Live video.

CNN has reached out to Siam BioScience for comment. Speaking to local media the Standard, Nualphan Lamsam, honorary director of corporate communications at Siam BioScience defended the company and said there was no delay in delivering the vaccine.

Thailand’s disease control department said as of June 7 there were 2.04 million AstraZeneca doses and 1.5 million Sinovac doses available in the country.

The department said it expected to receive 3.43 million more doses by the end of June.

Though it began its mass rollout on Monday, Thailand started vaccinating medical staff and frontline workers on February 28. As of June 4, more than 4 million doses were administered, including 1 million doses in Bangkok, it said.

Thailand has managed to keep overall Covid-19 cases low until the most recent outbreak emerged in early April from a Bangkok entertainment district, before infections spread to prisons, factories, migrant worker dorms and slum areas.

As of June 12, Thailand had reported a total of 193,105 Covid-19 cases and 1,431 deaths, according to the country’s health ministry.

This story has been updated to include statements from the Foreign Ministry and the Bangkok Metropolitan Police.

CNN Newsource

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