Rejection of India’s vaccine offer adds to mounting concerns about Thailand’s vaccine program

As the battle in Thailand continues to rage between the opposition, members of the public, and the government over Thailand’s Covid-19 vaccine acquisition program, the revelation that India offered to sell over 2 million doses of their AstraZeneca-licensed vaccine was rejected by the Thai government has raised questions about the current administration’s priorities.

India has pledged to give millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines to neighbouring countries over the next few weeks in a bid to push-back against China’s increasingly dominating presence within South and Southeast Asia.  

With a technological transfer agreement with AstraZeneca in place, the Serum Institute of India has already begun supplying vaccines to South Asian neighbors like Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan.

Myanmar, this week, received its first doses of the SII vaccine and is due to get millions more from the Narendra Modi government.

Vials of Covishield, AstraZeneca-Oxford’s Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine are pictured inside a lab where they are being manufactured at India’s Serum Institute in Pune on January 22, 2021. (Photo by Punit PARANJPE / AFP)

According to sources within the Indian government, the offer to supply the same vaccine, at cost, to Thailand (up to 2 million doses initially) was also presented to Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai but was rejected outright.

The Indian Ambassador in Thailand did not comment on the offer but said that the Indian government stood ready to work with Thai partners to ensure that vaccines reach at-risk populations and frontline workers.

“India and Thailand have close and friendly relations and many countries across the world, including many in Southeast Asia, have opted to purchase our vaccines. Thailand is also welcome to do so and that the Indian Embassy would be happy to facilitate it,” Ambassador Suchitra Durai told Thai Enquirer.

The Ministry of Affairs, however, told Thai Enquirer that it was “better” to get local vaccines “from the Ministry of Public Health or the vaccine institute.”

In terms of India’s offer of vaccines to Thailand, Tanee Sangrat, the Director-General of the Department of Information and spokesman for the ministry told Thai Enquirer that he could neither confirm nor deny the story and told Thai Enquire to “check with them directly.”

Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri also told Thai Enquirer that he had not received any information about India’s offer to Thailand.

Anucha said that AstraZeneca’s vaccine was the only one so-far approved by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use but Thailand would be looking at locally-produced variants with some importation being considered “from Europe” as the locally-produced version would not be ready until at least April.

According to analysts, the Thai government’s refusal to consider other sources of vaccines and its determination to forge-ahead with its vaccine program was “dogmatic and stubborn.”

“We’re lucky that the impact of Covid-19 has not been that acute in this country because this kind of approach would cost lives elsewhere,” said political analyst Arun Saronchai.

“I think you’re seeing this dogmatic and stubborn approach because there are people that stand to benefit from the government maintaining its course and insisting on locally-produced AstraZeneca vaccines and importing SinoVac vaccines.”

“You also see clout and influence of Chinese government in this region. Like India, they are also trying to promote their soft power with their vaccine diplomacy but the difference is they already have significance in the region,” Arun said.

Workers unload Sinovac vaccines from a truck under police escort in Surabaya on January 4, 2021, as the distribution of as many as 3 million Sinovac doses goes out to various provinces. (Photo by Juni Kriswanto / AFP)

Opposition inquest

Various members of the opposition have also questioned why the Thai government has dragged its feet on vaccine acquisition and why there are reports that the current administration is paying a premium for the vaccines they are looking to import.

According to local news reports and whistleblower statements from inside the government, Thailand is set to pay up to 60 per cent more per dose for both the SinoVac vaccine and the AstraZeneca vaccine drawing criticisms of corruption and embezzlement from the opposition parties.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha (C) and James Teague (2nd R), president of AstraZeneca in Thailand, attend a signing ceremony for the agreement to purchase AstraZeneca’s potential Covid-19 vaccine at Government House in Bangkok on November 27, 2020. (Photo by CHALINEE THIRASUPA / POOL / AFP)

“We are paying more than the market price for the vaccine which is concerning especially because our economy is already on shaky ground,” said Pheu Thai Deputy Leader Pichai Narithapan.

“This is one of the key areas that we will look at in the upcoming no-confidence debate, we will need to see whether there is any corruption.”

Move Forward MP Rangsiman Rome also said that his party was “concerned” about the news reports over vaccine acquisition.

“The only way to answer these questions that are being raised about the acquisition program is for the government to be completely transparent,” Rome told Thai Enquirer.

“But so far they have not been. Maybe they do have a reason for their acquisition program but these questions will continue to linger on until the government can be completely clear and transparent with the public and the media.”

Calls to Anuthin Charnvirakul, the Minister of Public Health, were not returned.

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