Covid-19: royal controversy around vaccination in Thailand

Thailand launched this week its “massive” vaccination campaign in a stormy context for the government … and King Rama X. The latter has, in fact, the laboratory supposed to locally produce doses of AstraZeneca vaccines. But what should have become an example of vaccine independence is turning into disarray.

It is not with a good heart that Bangkok decided, Tuesday, June 8, to place an order urgently for 20 million doses of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine. The product from the American laboratory is not even officially authorized by the Thai health authorities yet.

Thailand had imagined, in the fall of 2020, to become an example of vaccine independence. It wanted to locally produce more than 18 million doses of AstraZeneca per month from mid-2021. It even hoped to become the official supplier for all of Southeast Asia, making agreements to deliver its vaccines to Malaysia, the Philippines and even Taiwan.

“Shameful” vaccination campaign

The parallel purchase of two million doses of Sinovac, one of China’s vaccines, was to serve as a spare wheel to ensure that the official target of administering two doses to 70% of the nearly 70 million of Thais before the end of the year would be required.

But it is clear that nothing went as planned. The government has only launched his “massive” vaccination campaign that Monday last, acknowledging that the country had fallen behind. Since the start of the year, Thailand has vaccinated only about 5% of its population, much less than some of its neighbors such as Cambodia or Laos, although less wealthy.

AstraZeneca’s “made in Thailand” deliveries abroad have also been delayed. The Philippines has confirmed that it has learned that it will not receive all of the 17 million doses promised by Bangkok, and Taiwan has said it has only acknowledged just over 100,000 of the 10 million doses that were to be received. delivered, Reuters reports.

Even the press, “normally rather reserved with regard to power, deplored a ‘shameful’ vaccination campaign”, notes the Financial Times. It is all the more regrettable that at the time of the first wave of the pandemic, in the spring of 2020, Thailand was a model student, having succeeded in severely limiting the circulation of the virus.

But this time, the country bends under a third wave doped with variants. More than 20,000 cases per day are currently recorded there and the number of deaths is accelerating: nearly 70% of total deaths since the start of the pandemic have been recorded for a month … Suffice to say that without a rapid vaccine solution on the horizon, hopes of completely and quickly reopening Thailand to tourists, economically so important, are dwindling.

Thailand’s Prime Minister, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, as well as his Minister of Health, Anutin Charnvirakul, were quickly accused of having missed the vaccination train. But critics have been much more discreet about Siam Bioscience, the laboratory responsible for producing the doses of AstraZeneca.

A laboratory with no experience in vaccine production

For good reason: the subject is politically very sensitive, because Siam Bioscience is 99.9% owned by the King of Thailand, Maha Vajiralongkorn (Rama X). However, criticism of the monarch can quickly be regarded as insults, liable to criminal prosecution.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, one of Thailand’s main opponents, had this bitter experience. At the end of March, it was convicted of the crime of lese majesté for daring to question the government’s decision to rest all its hopes on a single vaccine, AstraZeneca, produced by a laboratory owned by the king. He faces up to 15 years in prison for his statements.

However, the choice of Siam Bioscience was not straightforward. This laboratory, founded in 2009, has no experience in vaccine production. So far, this company has only released some drugs, the majority of which were developed in partnership with a Cuban company.

Siam Bioscience was not even on the official 2020 list of private and public structures approved by the Thai government to participate in the national effort to fight Covid-19.

Despite this, when AstraZeneca sought in the fall of 2020 a Thai partner to produce its vaccine locally, the choice fell on this laboratory controlled by the King of Thailand. In the process, the government granted public aid of more than 16 million euros to Siam Bioscience to produce the doses of AstraZeneca.

A check that could revive the debate on the enrichment of the king. In 2017, he took direct control of all of the assets of the monarchy, which until then had been managed by an institutional fund attached to the Thai Crown Property Office. A transfer of fortune “which made the king one of the richest monarchs on the planet,” recalls the Financial Times.

A new pot for AstraZeneca ?

AstraZeneca’s decision to collaborate with this laboratory put the British-Swedish laboratory in a difficult position. “I think the group made a mistake of judgment. One would have thought that officials would have inquired about the implications of entering into a partnership with a company linked to the crown,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Thai political scientist at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, interviewed by the Financial Times.

AstraZeneca’s choice is all the more questionable as it involves a controversial political figure. Since his accession to the throne in 2016, Rama X has been accused on several occasions – notably by Washington in 2019 – for letting the regime take an increasingly authoritarian turn.

AstraZeneca did not want to venture into the ethics field, but assured the Financial Times that Siam Bioscience appeared to be “the best option [en Thaïlande] because of its modern facilities, its technical expertise and its access to large quantities of pharmaceutical materials “.

However, if Siam Bioscience continues to lag behind, it will probably be a new pot to put to the credit of AstraZeneca. And not the least since this “royal” laboratory is supposed to become the main supplier of vaccines for the entire region of Southeast Asia and its more than 650 million inhabitants.

1 thought on “Covid-19: royal controversy around vaccination in Thailand”


Comments are closed.