Thailand’s failure to procure mRNA vaccines proving costly as contagion spreads

(Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

Millions of Thais are closely following developments in the country’s acquisition of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, which are believed to be the most effective against the new coronavirus and its variants. Despite growing public anxiety over the country’s worsening outbreak, no mRNA vaccines are available in Thailand to date.

With a current daily toll of 5,000-plus new cases and dozens of fatalities, the government is offering only the AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines to people for free. For those willing to pay, the Sinopharm vaccine is also available. AstraZeneca is a viral-vector vaccine, while the Chinese Sinovac and Sinopharm brands are inactivated vaccines.

Thais’ patience is now running thin in the face of soaring COVID-19 cases and fatalities, and a widespread concern that the vaccines available are not capable of controlling an outbreak now being driven by the Delta variant. Several doctors, after all, have come down with the disease despite having already had two shots of the Sinovac vaccine.

Facing growing public pressure, agencies are now either passing the buck or dismissing any suggestion they have been dragging their feet when it comes to importing mRNA vaccines.

5 million doses of Moderna vaccine to be ordered next month for this year and next

Five million doses of the US-made Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are to be ordered as another paid alternative for Thailand, with deliveries expected late this year and early next, according to the Thai Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) today (Friday).

Why no mRNA vaccines in Thailand?

The much-touted mRNA vaccines, one made by Pfizer and the other by Moderna, have been on Thais’ radar since early 2021. Studies show that both offer greater protection against the virus than the three vaccine brands currently available to Thais.

Yet, even though the private sector has long been eager to procure mRNA and other vaccines for Thais, the government did not give a clear nod until April 9. In March, the Health Service Support Department was still warning private hospitals against accepting vaccine reservations from people.

Pfizer finally revealed it had been offering to supply its vaccine to Thailand all along. Yet, the government firmly stuck to its plan to use locally produced doses of AstraZeneca, along with China’s Sinovac.

Only after Pfizer spoke up publicly did the government’s negotiations to procure its vaccine seem to make some progress.

On April 29, the two sides signed a confidential disclosure agreement. In May, binding term sheets for a vaccine deal were prepared in consultation with the Office of the Attorney-General (OAG). On June 10, the binding term sheets were signed. On June 11, registration documents were filed for the Pfizer vaccine. The Thai Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the registration on June 24. On June 26, Pfizer presented its draft manufacturing and supply agreement, which is now being reviewed by OAG.

The government plans to use Pfizer jabs to vaccinate children aged between 12 and 18. Moderna, meanwhile, will be procured as an alternative vaccine offered for a price by the private sector.

It should be noted that the procurement of Moderna also appears to have hit hurdles.

Dr. Boon Vanasin, chairman of Thon Buri Healthcare Group (THG), last week pointed his finger at the government, saying that THG had planned to import 50 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna since last October. Trials indicate that the mRNA vaccines are highly effective and offer long-lasting immunity.

“I am wondering why Thailand has not yet signed purchase agreements for Pfizer and Moderna,” Boon said recently. “Our neighbours such as the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia have already got mRNA vaccines.”

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What does the government say?

Responding to Boon’s comment, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul insisted his ministry has not dragged its feet.

“If you want to make a profit from vaccines, you need to negotiate with the supplier. The government will not shoulder any risk in the procurement for you, especially financial risk,” he said.

As the public fumed over the government’s perceived delay in securing highly-effective vaccines, OAG released a statement on July 2 dismissing rumors that the draft contract to purchase Moderna vaccine was pending its review.

“It took us just one day to review the draft contract on Sinovac vaccine purchase and just five days to review the draft contract on AstraZeneca vaccine purchase,” the statement said.

In response to the OAG’s move, the Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) – which is tasked with ordering Moderna for private hospitals –¬¬¬ hastily arranged a press conference on the same day to explain that the procurement was moving ahead as planned.

GPO managing director Dr Withoon Danwiboon said his agency had contacted Moderna on February 25 asking if it could provide vaccine doses by June. Moderna replied three days later: the earliest they could deliver doses was the first quarter of next year.

On April 1, GPO asked Moderna for the name of its distributor in Thailand, as two firms had insisted they could import the vaccine. The next day, Moderna confirmed that Zuellig Pharma was its sole distributor.

On April 21, Thai authorities agreed that Moderna could be sold as an alternative vaccine. Zuellig Pharma announced on May 15 that procurement could only be made via a state organization. GPO has thus taken up the mission of facilitating the procurement of Moderna.

“To date, we have not yet signed any agreement because the purchase with state budget has not been made. We need to wait for the private sector to specify its requirement and submit payment first. We expect it to do so before the end of this month so that we can sign the contract early next month,” Withoon said.

He added that the Private Hospitals Association has expressed a demand for 9 million doses of Moderna. However, the supplier said it could deliver only 4 million doses in the last quarter of 2021 and another 1 million in the first quarter of next year.

“It should be noted that the planned deliveries are earlier than offered by Moderna at the beginning of discussions,” Withoon said.

He added that after Zuellig Pharma submitted its draft supply agreement to GPO on July 2, his agency forwarded it to OAG on the same day.

What do doctors say?

Medical associations are now openly expressing frustration at the government’s vaccine plan. During the past week, the Royal College of Physicians of Thailand declared that the government must work to the fullest of its abilities to provide vaccines that are effective against COVID-19 and variants.

Meanwhile, the Infectious Diseases Association of Thailand questioned the efficacy of Sinovac, noting that Indonesia and Chile have already shifted from the Chinese vaccine to mRNA brands. A network of healthcare workers and frontline medical workers also launched a petition campaign pressing the government to procure mRNA-type vaccines.

As of press time, the petition had received more than 100,000 signatures.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk

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