Mass Vaccination Campaign in Thailand Stumbles, Just as Cases Surge
BANGKOK — For months, the government of Thailand assured citizens that a plan to dole out free, locally made coronavirus shots would start in early June. About 70 percent of the national population would be inoculated by the end of the year, health officials said.
Then the delays began, just as the country was struggling with its worst outbreak of the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.
On Sunday night, nearly a week after the vaccination program was supposed to have kicked into high gear, hospitals in Bangkok announced that previously confirmed appointments had been canceled.
There was no word as to why or when they might be rescheduled.
The knock-on effect of what appears to be a mass shortage of Thai-made vaccines is also radiating to other parts of the region, where inoculation campaigns are far behind those of many Western countries. The governments of Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have announced that they are scaling back their vaccine rollouts because of lower-than-expected shipments from Thailand. (Thailand disputed the claims that it was to blame.)
Last year, Thailand was designated the regional hub for local production of the AstraZeneca shots. A contract was awarded to Siam Bioscience, a pharmaceutical firm with no prior experience in manufacturing vaccines. The company is controlled by the king of Thailand.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand has warned that criticism of the company could be considered a criminal offense under the kingdom’s strict royal defamation laws. An opposition politician who questioned how Siam Bioscience got such a contract was charged with lèse-majesté — wronging the monarch — this year.
Although Thailand was the first country to record a coronavirus case outside of China, in January 2020, the country suppressed the virus’ rampant spread for most of that year. Late in 2020, the country had recorded fewer than 5,000 total cases of the coronavirus.
But Thailand is now dealing with thousands of new cases each day. As of Monday, only about 3 percent of the population had been fully inoculated.
Phatorn Chingduang, a shipping company employee, was supposed to get his first dose of AstraZeneca on June 12, along with about 15 others at his company. The day before the shots were to be administered, he was sent a text canceling the appointment.
“I don’t see the government doing enough,” Mr. Phatorn said. “This vaccine drama, it’s so bad.”
Recriminations are ricocheting. At least five Bangkok hospitals said on Monday that they did not have enough doses. All vaccines in Thailand are being distributed by the Ministry of Public Health.
The ministry countered by saying that it had sent out promised doses to the local authorities, who were responsible for specific hospital allocations. Vaccines for at least 50 million people have already been procured, said Opas Karnkawinpong, the director general of the department of disease control, on Monday.
The same day, Aswin Kwanmuang, the governor of Bangkok, alluded to “technical difficulties” and said that mass vaccinations in the capital would be suspended on June 15.
“Bangkok will stop the vaccinations and will resume the inoculations as soon as we receive the vaccines,” he said.
On Monday, as factories and prisons in the Bangkok area struggled with mounting outbreaks, officials said that parks and museums would reopen in the capital, loosening a monthslong lockdown.
Also open for business again? Tattoo parlors and foot massage salons.