Anxiety over Covid-19 vaccination amid tight supplies, efficacy doubts in Thailand

AstraZeneca asked to extend the delivery timeline for the 61 million doses meant to be supplied to Thailand by five months. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK - Public anxiety about Covid-19 vaccination in Thailand peaked in recent weeks as demand outstripped the number of doses in stock, even as concerns mount over the efficacy of one of the primary vaccines being offered in the mass inoculation drive.

The kingdom initially set a monthly target to administer 10 million doses when it started its nationwide roll-out last month, but insufficient stocks of locally produced AstraZeneca vaccines have hindered this goal and sent residents turning to other avenues for their jabs.

In the latest blow on Thursday (July 15), AstraZeneca asked to extend the delivery timeline for the 61 million doses meant to be supplied to Thailand by five months, from December to May next year.

"We must negotiate with them because in this situation we need more vaccines," said Deputy Health Minister Sathit Pitutacha as the kingdom battles the worst wave yet of the coronavirus, with new infections hovering near 10,000 daily.

Since February, Thailand has administered around 13 million doses of mostly AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines, and only about 5 per cent of its over 66 million population have been fully vaccinated.

Earlier this week, the Thai government said it would mix doses of Sinovac and AstraZeneca, while a new preliminary Thai study raised doubts about the longer-term efficacy of the Sinovac vaccine.

In an effort to shore up the immunity of healthcare workers against the fast-spreading Delta variant, Thailand also plans to give booster shots of Pfizer or AstraZeneca to those who are already fully inoculated with Sinovac. The authorities say 618 of the 677,348 medical personnel who received the Chinese-developed vaccine were infected with Covid-19.

The dent in public perception of the effectiveness of Sinovac, and concerns over vaccine supplies have driven some Thais to explore other ways of getting vaccination.

For those who can afford to travel, getting inoculated in other countries like the United States is an option. Locally there has been a mad rush to secure mRNA-based Moderna shots in private hospitals, which cost about 3,000 baht (S$124) for the two-shot regime.

Ms Tarruthai Thamvongsin, 38, is among the handful of Thai citizens who went overseas to get vaccinated. She flew to the US in April with her husband and managed to get Pfizer doses in California.

"We weren't sure when we would get the vaccine in Thailand, and waiting made us even more paranoid. We thought it was better to get vaccinated as soon as possible," said Ms Tarruthai, who owns a food and beverage business.

She said the process in the US was simple. She made an appointment online and turned up at a pharmacy for the free vaccination.

She spent about US$10,000 (S$13,600) on the flight, accommodation and daily expenses.

In recent months, the Thai authorities have been trying to procure more vaccines and diversify the types offered. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines received emergency approval in the last two months, but are not offered in the national vaccine drive at the moment.

The country is expected to receive 20 million doses from Pfizer at the end of the year. The US will also be donating 1.5 million Pfizer doses.

Private hospitals in Thailand, via a state procurement programme, will get five million doses of the Moderna vaccine between this year and next.

One Thai national, who wanted to go by only her nickname Tilly, has a state vaccination appointment scheduled for later this month, but she has some reservations.

"If on that day I find out that they will be giving me Sinovac, I'm getting out of there," said Tilly, a former air stewardess in her 30s.

As "backup", she has placed a 2,400 baht deposit with the private Thonburi Healthcare Group for two doses of the Moderna vaccine in October.

"I want a vaccination that lasts and can counter the Delta variant," said Tilly, who is not alone in seeking one through alternative means.

Last week, 1,800 slots for the Moderna vaccine were snapped up in minutes when Phyathai Hospital put them up for sale on e-commerce platform Shopee.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.