Critics Inject Doubt Into Thailand’s Vaccine Deal With China

By Thai PBS World 16 January 2021

As contagion-hit Thailand rushes to register two COVID-19 vaccines, a debate has sprung up about the efficacy of one of the candidates – China’s CoronaVac.

Even the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece under the People’s Daily, reported that while CoronaVac is 100 per cent effective in reducing the severity of infections and can keep 80 per cent of patients out of hospital, it only protects “50 per cent of people from infection”.

This confirms previous reports that CoronaVac lacks the efficacy of other COVID-19 vaccines, barely reaching the 50-per-cent threshold required by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In comparison, the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine embraced earlier by Thailand is said to be between 62 and 90 per cent effective.

CoronaVac became an added option as Thailand rushes to inoculate its population after a second wave of coronavirus hit in mid-December.

While Thai authorities insist they have prioritized vaccine safety and quality, some members of the public will almost certainly have to settle for CoronaVac. The Public Health Ministry expects CoronaVac, produced by China’s Sinovac Biotech, to be registered in Thailand by Feb. 14 with the first batch due to arrive before the end of February.

However, according to a well-placed source, Thailand’s vaccine procurement panel had initially not incorporated CoronaVac in its plans due to complicated conditions during negotiations.

“We now have concerns because China has only approved this vaccine for emergency use,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that an official report on CoronaVac has not been released either.

Thai govt ‘pressured’

The source said the Thai government felt pressure to rush to secure a vaccine after Singapore and Laos began inoculating their populations. Singapore procured the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine – reportedly 90 per cent effective – while Laos is using the Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine from China.

As well as pressure from neighbors who are already inoculating, Thailand has been hit by a fresh outbreak of local transmissions. Over the past four weeks, local infections have climbed quickly into the thousands.

As of press time, there were 3,981 active COVID-19 cases in Thailand.

Thailand’s inoculation plan

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has received registration applications for two COVID-19 vaccines so far, according to its secretary-general, Dr. Paisarn Dunkum. One is from AstraZeneca (Thailand) and the other from the Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) for CoronaVac.

Dr. Khiattibhoom Vongrachit, permanent secretary for the Public Health Ministry, said the GPO made the application because CoronaVac Biotech does not have a representative in Thailand.

“We intend to have CoronaVac vaccine registered by Feb. 14,” he said.

According to the plan, 200,000 CoronaVac doses will arrive in Thailand late next month, with 800,000 to follow in March, and another 1 million doses by late April. The government is spending Bt1.2 billion (53.2 billion kyats) on the 2 million doses, which works out to US$17 (22,700 kyats) per dose.

The government plans to have half of the population or 33 million people inoculated against the coronavirus.

It has already signed a purchase order for 26 million doses from AstraZeneca in a deal that also includes knowledge transfer for Thailand-based Siam Bioscience to produce the vaccine locally. Recently it announced plans to purchase 35 million more doses from AstraZeneca, on top of further vaccine purchases via the WHO’s COVAX Facility.

Siam Bioscience says it will be able to produce 15 million to 20 million doses per month.

Concerns about fast track, efficacy

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thira Woratanarat, a Chulalongkorn University medical lecturer, said the main job of a vaccine is to prevent infection.

“Stopping symptoms from worsening is just the secondary purpose of the vaccine,” he wrote on Facebook. “Meanwhile it would be best if data on vaccines were made transparent and extensive research conducted in line with international standards,” he said.

In response to concern that Thailand had adopted CoronaVac far too quickly, Lertchai Lertvut, chief of the FDA’s Public Consumer Affairs Division, insisted it was not being fast tracked.

“We will not skip any steps, and will set up a team to screen the thousands of pages of data on the vaccine,” he said.

Dr. Supakit Sirilak, director-general of the Medical Sciences Department, told people not to panic, adding that a vaccine was acceptable if it passed the WHO standard of being more than 50 percent effective and caused no serious side effects.

“Since CoronaVac is based on an old vaccine-production technique, it will have fewer side effects,” he said.

Countries going for CoronaVac

Despite questions about its effectiveness, CoronaVac has already been procured by several countries. On Wednesday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo was the first person to receive a jab from the initial batch of 150 million CoronaVac doses his government ordered.

Hong Kong has ordered 7.5 million doses and expects the first batch of 1 million to arrive before the end of this month. The Philippines, meanwhile, has purchased 25 million doses, while Brazil, Ukraine and Turkey have ordered 46 million, 1.9 million and 50 million doses of CoronaVac, respectively.

Meanwhile, researchers in Brazil on Tuesday released late-stage clinical data showing that the efficacy of CoronaVac was far lower than initially announced or just 50.4 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infections. Last week, they said the vaccine showed 78 per cent efficacy against “mild-to-severe” cases.

The news prompted Malaysia and Singapore, which have purchase agreements with Sinovac Biotech, to say that they would seek more data from the Chinese firm on efficacy rates before they approve and buy the doses.

This article was first published by Thai PBS World.

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