A debate over COVID-19 vaccines between a minister and a former MP on an audio-chat application has revived questions about the transparency of Thailand’s vaccination plan.
Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul showed up at a room on the audio-chat Clubhouse app on Friday night. He was later joined by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who accused him of lying about the vaccine procurement plan.
The room, for the discussion on “Thai vaccines: Should we go ahead?”, attracted more than 8,000 people and the hosts appeared pleasantly surprised when Mr Charnvirakul entered.
The minister started taking a few questions from the audience about the development of Thai-made vaccines when someone asked him why the Thai government had chosen Siam Bioscience as the local contract manufacturer of AstraZeneca shots.
The minister explained it was AstraZeneca that had chosen Siam Bioscience as its manufacturer, not the government.
At this point, Mr Juangroongruangkit entered the room and said: “Khun Anutin, you can’t lie to people like this.”
According to the disqualified MP, the government earlier said it had chosen AstraZeneca because its delivery schedules suited the government’s plan.
“According to official documents acquired by a House panel in November, AstraZeneca will fulfil all orders in 2023. Doesn’t this mean the appropriate and right time for the government is over the next 2-3 years?” he asked, implying the government’s timeline was far too late.
Mr Charnvirakul replied by asking: “How could a deputy prime minister lie to the people?”
He went on to explain that the plan Mr Juangroongruangkit was talking about was an earlier one.
“Now that we have access to the vaccines, it has been revised. I promise 60 million doses will be administered by the end of this year,” he said.
The Disease Control Department confirmed 10 million doses would be given each month until all 60 million shots are administered, Mr Charnvirakul said.
“After that, if demand warrants it, the plan may be revised again and new brands may be considered,” he said, before suddenly leaving the room.
Mr Charnvirakul moved to Facebook later that night to repeat his explanations. He also apologised to the audience for abruptly leaving. “I didn’t want to argue with anyone and spoil the atmosphere so I left,” he wrote.
He concluded by saying: “I haven’t lied to people, nor have I ever turned vaccines into a political issue.”
On Saturday afternoon, Mr Juangroongruangkit explained more on Facebook and insisted Mr Charnvirakul did not tell people the truth.
“The government announced a revised plan on 5th January (or 67 days ago). It aims to inoculate only 50% of the population by the end of 2021. However, according to the first plan, AstraZeneca will deliver only 16 million doses this year and another 10 million in 2022,” he wrote.
“How could it be said that the delivery schedule matches our plan, which has just been changed to 26 million doses this year?” he wrote, hinting the revised plan no longer matched the vaccine delivery timeline.
Countering Mr Charnvirakul’s explanation that the government did not choose Siam Bioscience, Mr Juangroongruangkit claimed to have evidence.
“All official documents showed the government started the process of using a state budget of at least 600 million baht to help this company enhance its readiness since August 2020. This happened before the four-party signing of the letter of intent on 12th October 2020 for the procurement of the AstraZeneca vaccines,” he wrote.
Siam Bioscience is owned by His Majesty the King.
Mr Juangroongruangkit had earlier won a case against the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society, which sought to block local access to his video clips criticising the government’s vaccine procurement plan on the ground it was a royal insult. The ministry appealed the court’s decision.
More than a year after the start of the pandemic that has killed 2.6 million people worldwide, the availability of vaccines has been a major issue for every country.
Without them, Thailand risks facing more lockdowns, destroying the economy, especially the tourism industry, and the livelihoods of many people in the process.
Foreseeing a huge demand, private hospitals in Thailand have been looking forward to importing and administering the shots by themselves but the government warned they need to wait for import licences and clearance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the government first.
Mr Charnvirakul said on Saturday that he had asked the FDA to expedite the approval process after some hospital executives claimed they had been told the regulator would need up to 90 days to consider their requests.
Some ASEAN countries have adopted a model where a state agency imports the vaccines and distributes them to private medical facilities, for free in some cases.
While the liberalisation of vaccines could help speed up creating herd immunity in the country, some warn it could widen the inequality gap since priorities will no longer be based on one’s risks but on affordability.