Despite reassurances from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul that the mass Covid-19 vaccinations for people over 60 and those suffering from seven non-communicable underlying diseases across the country will proceed as scheduled on June 7, scepticism remains strong among many about whether this administration can still be trusted after repeated blunders in the handling of the pandemic.
From the failure to postpone the Songkran long holidays and reluctance to impose travel restrictions which caused the Thong Lor cluster to spread nationwide, to putting all the eggs in one basket by betting on just the locally produced AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine supplemented by Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine.
Or the confusion about the Mor Prom platform for booking jabs including suspended applications, leading to the abrupt cancellation of the on-site vaccination programme before it had even started. That’s to name just a few.
The announcement in the Royal Gazette on May 26 authorising the Chulabhorn Royal Academy to procure an alternative vaccine, followed closely by another announcement at a press conference last Friday that the Academy will procure one million doses of Sinopharm from China with its own budget, was widely viewed by critics as a snub to the government’s clumsiness in the procurement of alternative vaccines. This notion, however, was dismissed by faithful followers of the prime minister.
But like it or not, the government’s procurement of alternative vaccines has been a flop and there is a likelihood that the mass vaccination of two selected groups of people — the elderly over 60 and those suffering from seven underlying diseases — scheduled to start on June 7 may hit a snag from a shortage of vaccines or their late arrival.
The academy’s decision to step in by procuring an initial one million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine should be a wake-up call to the prime minister.
He should start thinking out of the box and use his immense self-bestowed powers to prod authorities concerned who are not frontline doctors to work harder and faster to face up to the emergency.
This was evident in the approval by the Food and Drug Administration of Biogenetech’s application for registration of the Sinopharm vaccine.
FDA Secretary-General Paisal Dunkhum was quoted as saying that approval came a few minutes before noon when the Academy and the FDA were scheduled to announce the academy’s plan to procure one million doses of Sinopharm vaccine.
Would this have happened without a push from the academy?
The prime minister has all the powers of a strongman which many of his predecessors would envy.
But the powers are useless if he does not know how and when to use them while the pandemic continues to spread and kill with no sign of slowing down, particularly in Bangkok and its peripheries.
June 7 is less than 10 days away and many are still questioning whether there will be enough vaccines for the mass vaccination programme.
Tens of thousands of elderly people and those afflicted with underlying diseases are anxiously waiting to be inoculated while many more will queue up in the following days for vaccinations.
Failing them will be a disaster for the government, the prime minister in particular.
But there are some people who do not want to be vaccinated because they do not buy into the notion that “any vaccine is better than no vaccine” and want more vaccine choices which are not available now.
This is understandable as the Sinovac vaccine has not been approved by the World Health Organization and the AstraZeneca shot has been linked to serious side effects such as blood clots in a minority of cases.
But a small group, calling themselves the “Medics of the People” and claiming to represent the Thai public, led by Tossaporn Serirak, went a step too far in sending a letter addressed to US President Joe Biden via the US embassy in Bangkok begging the US to send some vaccines to Thais.
Reminding the US of the centuries-old friendly relationship between Thailand and the US, the group told the US president that they do not trust the AstraZeneca vaccine to be produced by Siam Bioscience, a pharmaceutical company founded by the late King Bhumibol, and are not sure when the vaccine will be available.
They are wrong to believe the US administration might be so philanthropic as to rush to their rescue with alternative vaccines from Pfizer or Moderna free of charge despite having to pay themselves.
Taiwan, which is closer to the US as a military ally, has recently asked for vaccines, but its request was rejected on the grounds the situation in Taiwan is not serious to warrant such aid.
The AstraZeneca vaccine, whether it is produced in Thailand, the US or elsewhere must meet the same quality standards set by the mother company in Britain.
There is no need to insult the Thai product merely because of political bias. Thai people will have more choices in the future.
But for the time being, they may have to accept a shot of AstraZeneca’s vaccine if they want to defeat the virus.
Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.