Thailand hits vaccine accelerator as virus launches second surge

A medical worker shows a syringe with the Sinovac Biotech vaccine against the COVID-19 coronavirus at a healthcare centre in Yantai, in eastern China’s Shandong province on January 5, 2021. (Photo by STR / AFP)

Battling a fresh outbreak of COVID-19, Thailand has decided to speed up its free nationwide vaccination programme.

The first batch of vaccines supplied by Chinese vaccine developer Sinovac Biotech will arrive next month, according to the Medical Sciences Department.

However, the department’s director-general Dr Supakit Sirilak said the vaccine, known as CoronaVac, must first pass Thai quality checks.

Quality over speed

Supakit said that while Thailand was aiming to purchase the Chinese vaccine soon, the deal depended on the outcome of thorough checks on its effectiveness and safety. Sinovac Biotech is expected to release a full report on the vaccine by mid this month.

“If it is not up to international standards, we will not buy it,” Supakit said.

Thailand will also review results from the World Health Organisation’s inspection of Sinovac Biotech’s plants, he added.

Meanwhile, teams from the Thai Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Government Pharmaceutical Organisation will help with the quality review.

Supakit was speaking after Xinhua reported on January 3 that Thailand was expected to buy 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine from Sinovac Biotech.

Vaccination schedule

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha announced on Tuesday that the government had authorised the Public Health Ministry to procure 2 million doses of CoronaVac for the first phase of national inoculation.

The scramble to secure the first shipment of vaccine came after a fresh wave of COVID-19 hit Thailand last month.

As of Tuesday (Jan 5) there were more than 4,500 active COVID-19 cases in the country, most of them locally transmitted. The outbreak was traced to a seafood market in Samut Sakhon manned mainly by migrant workers from Myanmar, who account for the majority of cases so far.  Worryingly, new cases quickly soared into the hundreds per day.

If Thai authorities clear the Sinovac Biotech vaccine, the first batch of 200,000 doses will arrive in late February. The second batch of 800,000 doses will follow a month later, then another 1 million doses in late April.

In May, about 26 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine developed by Oxford University will be produced by Thai firm Siam Bioscience.

Prayut added that Thailand will secure another 35 million doses from AstraZeneca in the near future, bringing its total doses in the pipeline to 63 million. Each person needs two doses.

Priority groups for inoculation

The PM made clear that medical workers will be vaccinated first, and the second priority will be the elderly and people with chronic illnesses, both of whom are at risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.

Officially Thailand’s population numbers 66 million people, but most estimates put the figure closer to 70 million.

To achieve herd-immunity, vaccination must cover about 80 per cent of the population, according to Dr Thira Waratanarat of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine.

“We need to use a proactive approach in vaccine procurement,” he added, pointing out that several countries have already launched inoculation programmes. Bloomberg recently reported that inoculation had begun in 33 countries with more than 13 million shots administered so far.

Thira urged the Thai government to allow private hospitals to procure COVID-19 vaccine. “The government should control the price and quality, but not prohibit procurement,” he said.

He estimates that about half of Thailand’s population will be inoculated by mid-2022.

For effective inoculation, each person needs two shots of the vaccine, about four weeks apart. Bodily reactions to the vaccine must also be monitored to ensure any undesirable effects are properly addressed.

Thai vaccines in the making

Thai researchers in the global race to develop coronavirus vaccines are now working on more than 10 prototypes using different technologies. The three frontrunners have passed the animal-testing phase and are now heading into human trials under their respective developers – CU Faculty of Medicine, CU Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Bionet Asia Co Ltd.

CU’s Faculty of Medicine has been granted more than Bt300 million by the National Vaccine Institute to develop the Chula-Cov19 mRNA vaccine. After successful tests on guinea pigs and monkeys, the prototype will advance to human trials in April.

Funded by Australia, Bionet Asia researchers expect their prototype to enter phase 1 and 2 of human trials early this year. It forecasts results from humans by late March.

A separate promising prototype is being developed by Baiya Phytopharm, a start-up run by the CU Enterprise Foundation and launched by two lecturers from Chula’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Baiya Phytopharm will collaborate with KingenBiotech at the King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi and the Government Pharmaceutical Organisation to conduct human trials, which are expected by mid-2021.

Hit by a lack of government funding, BaiyaPhytopharm launched a public campaign to raise Bt500 million on December 18 and expects its vaccine to be ready for general use by late 2021.

Thailand has also joined the World Health Organisation’s COVAX project, which is a gateway to the Access to the COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator. ACT Accelerator is a global collaboration to speed up the development, production and access to data on COVID-19 treatment and vaccines. This project will help some 200 countries negotiate deals with vaccine makers and distribute available doses among member countries.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk

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