Does Thailand’s deal for 8.5 million ATKs pass the corruption test?
Thailand’s surging COVID-19 crisis has spawned a series of rumors and scandals, with the latest centered on rapid antigen test kits (ATKs). Initially touted as a tool to control COVID-19, ATKs are now viewed by many as a breeding ground for corruption.
The Rural Doctors Society (RDS) has openly clashed with several authorities – notably the Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – over their decision to back the procurement of 8.5 million ATK sets produced by China’s Lepu Medical Technology Co via local company Ostland Capital Plc.
Why is the deal being questioned?
RDS points out that the United States Food and Drug Administration recalled the Lepu kits over serious concerns about their accuracy. Meanwhile, Ostland Capital won bidding at a price of Bt70 per set, but a quick check on Alibaba.com shows a selling price of just Bt33.32. Research in Pakistan also shows the Lepu ATKs had produced a high percentage of false positives.
“If the quality of ATKs is not high, patients will lose their chance of fast access to treatments, which will make it harder to control the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak,” RDS commented.
Dr Kriengsak Vacharanukulkieti, a former RDS president who currently chairs the National Health Security Office’s (NHSO) committee negotiating ATK rates, said NHSO had talked to two separate suppliers to procure ATKs used by the World Health Organization (WHO).
“We have successfully negotiated deals for ATKs at Bt120 per unit including transportation to testing centers,” he said. “This price is even lower than ATKs procured and distributed by WHO.”
Questions have also been raised about the successful bidder in the ATKs deal. Established in 2014 with the registered capital of Bt5 million, Ostland Capital operated in the red between 2018 and 2020. Two Russians and one Thai sit on its board of directors, according to official records.
The mRNA vaccine, currently being developed by the Vaccine Research Centre of the Faculty of Medicine of Chulalongkorn University, can stimulate the immune system to produce killer T-cells which can stop four COVID-19 variants, namely Alpha, Delta, Beta and Gamma, said Professor Dr. Kiat Ruxrungtham, director of the vaccine development project, today (Monday) He said that the initial results of the first phase of human trials of the ChulaCov19 mRNA vaccine candidate in 36 volunteers, aged between 18 and 55, who were given two shots, are “good news”.
Answers from those backing the deal
GPO managing-director Dr Withoon Danwiboon said his agency stepped in to procure ATKs for the NHSO because it was asked to do so. It held an auction on August 11 to choose a supplier who could provide quality ATKs at the lowest price.
“The successful bid price is far lower than Bt120 ceiling set by the procurement project,” he said. “We have saved more than Bt400 million in government budget.”
Ostland Capital beat 15 other bidders to win the contract. Meanwhile, the FDA has already approved the Lepu kits.
FDA secretary-general Dr Paisarn Dunkum said clinical tests by Mahidol University’s Faculty of Medicine Ramathibodi Hospital found Lepu ATKs had 90 percent sensitivity and 100 percent specificity. This performance meets WHO standards and Thai regulations, he said.
“It is also approved for use in the European Union,” he added.
Asked why the US had banned the Lepu test kits, Paisarn claimed it was because the manufacturer had not yet registered the product in the US market.
FDA deputy secretary-general Dr Surachoke Tangwiwat said it was also the case that certain products used in the US are not registered in other countries or endorsed by WHO.
Withoon shrugged off criticism that Ostland Capital had operated at a loss over the past three years. “Our auction rules do not mention profitability as a criterion,” he said.
Meanwhile, SET-listed property giant Nusasiri Plc has explained that one of its subsidiaries represents Ostland Capital in this deal.
RDS says the FDA and GPO will be held responsible if the Lepu ATKs proved ineffective in actual usage. RDS adviser Dr Arak Wongworachat has also lodged a complaint against Withoon over a leaked audio clip featuring a conversation between them.
“It was secretly recorded, taken out of context, and released to the public in a way that apparently aims to defame me and RDS,” Arak said. “It’s unethical.”
Arak, who also sits on the NHSO committee negotiating ATK rates, can be heard in the clip asking why the kits had not been procured yet.
By Thai PBS World’s General Desk