Thailand’s sluggish vaccine rollout no match for super-contagious COVID strain

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(Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP)

Thailand is ramping up its COVID-19 vaccination drive following an unprecedented surge in infections since April 5.

Official records show that only 247,850 people in Thailand had received their first jab as of April 5 – but that number more than doubled to 581,311 by April 15. Both vaccines provided by the government – Sinovac and AstraZeneca – require two doses.

However, though the number of Thais vaccinated against COVID-19 has risen fast, it is still less than 1 percent of the total population. About 70 percent of the population must have antibodies before herd immunity is reached, research suggests.

Unsurprisingly, critics are lambasting the government over perceived delays in Thailand’s vaccination drive. Worse yet, doubts over the safety and efficacy of the two vaccines still linger.

Rollout plans

Disease Control Department director-general Dr Opart Karnkawinpong declared this week that the vaccination programme is proceeding as planned. But as of March, Thailand had secured just over 1 million doses, enough to fully inoculate only 500,000 people.

Another batch of one million Sinovac doses only arrived on April 10 and is being checked for quality by the Medical Sciences Department before it is released for general use.

“About 600,000 doses from this batch will be allocated to frontline medical personnel,” Opart said. “We aim to ensure all frontline medical workers get both their doses within one month to handle the new wave of COVID-19 infections.”

Though Opart’s announcement carried a tone of urgency, the first batch of locally produced AstraZeneca vaccine is not scheduled to be released until June. Under the government’s plan, the royally owned Siam Bioscience company will produce 61 million doses of the vaccine.

The private sector, meanwhile, has stepped forward to support the mass inoculation drive. The Thai Chamber of Commerce (TCC) and Bangkok Metropolitan Administration are preparing vaccination centres in private facilities to speed up the programme. The private sector will provide not just venues, but also equipment and support such as cold storage and transportation of vaccines.

“We want to ensure people are inoculated as soon as possible,” TCC chairman Sanan Angubolkul said. However, he also gave the government an “F” for getting less than 1 per cent of the population vaccinated to date.

As of April 7, Thailand’s vaccine rollout was the eighth slowest in Asean, according to the Our World in Data project at Oxford University. Thailand had administered the equivalent of half a dose for every 100 people (323,989 doses), while Singapore topped the rankings with 27 doses per 100 people, followed by Indonesia (5), Malaysia (2.6), Cambodia (1.8), the Philippines (0.8), Myanmar (0.7) and Laos (0.6).

Safe and effective?

Both the AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines have met standards set by the World Health Organisation and are being used in many countries around the globe.

However, doubts arose over their safety and efficacy recently. On Thursday, Denmark became the first European nation to completely halt the use of AstraZeneca vaccine over rare but serious side effects, namely blood clots in the brain. The Australian state of Victoria has blocked the AstraZeneca rollout for under 50s for the same reason.

Overall, AstraZeneca is 81.5 percent effective in preventing symptomatic infections, though its efficacy drops to just 70.4 percent when faced with the UK variant. This variant was detected among the cluster of infections in Bangkok pubs last month that triggered Thailand’s third wave.

While no serious side effects have emerged in recipients of the Sinovac vaccine, it is barely 50 percent effective against the normal strain and reportedly offers even less protection against mutated versions.

The only other COVID-19 vaccine registered in Thailand is the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) jab, which was initially seen as an alternative for those willing to pay. However, a health scare has also hit this vaccine. The United States, South Africa and the European Union have all decided to halt the rollout of J&J jabs following a few reports of blood clotting among recipients.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk

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