Thailand has ordered millions of doses of Sinovac, which enjoys the dubious honor of being perhaps the most doubted vaccine brand in the world.
Its reputation has been butchered in the international press. It has yet to be approved by the World Health Organization. Many Thais make no secret of their fear and derision. Some loudly declare they refuse to take it. One Twitter user told me that it is equivalent to death: hyperbole, to be sure, but reflective of the general mood.
And this mood is now fueling a more generalized vaccine hesitancy — a desire to delay getting a vaccination even as Thailand’s mass vaccination campaign steps into high gear next month, in favor of waiting for an alternative choice later in the year.
It is a concerning phenomenon, and the effects already clear. A YouGov survey conducted between November and January showed that Thailand had, at 83%, one of the highest rates of vaccine acceptance in the world. Within a month, a Suan Dusit poll showed only 68% of respondents wanted to be vaccinated as soon as possible. While many factors play into this trend, Sinovac-phobia is certainly one of them.
This has led to many efforts to increase acceptance of Sinovac, with medical experts, government figures and celebrities encouraging people to take the jab. Pravit Rojanaphruk, a noted government critic, has also written that in the public interest, he is willing to be vaccinated with Sinovac or whichever vaccine is available the soonest.
And so, as a concerned citizen, I’d like to join in this call. I’ve seen a large number of young people write on Twitter about how they’ve been offered an opportunity to register for vaccines one way or another, but are hesitant or are actively encouraging people not to do so. For my part, I believe in the advice from the medical authorities that the first vaccine that is available is the best vaccine. And, to walk the talk: I have just gotten vaccinated with Sinovac.
Before we move any further, let me begin by pre-empting any possible accusation of line cutting or nepotism. Chulabhorn Hospital had opened up vaccine registrations to the general public, and I registered and received an appointment. (Registration is available here, although I have heard that appointments are no longer immediately made.) And so off I went for a vaccination.
The process was orderly and fast. Each person in the queue was called up, jabbed, and asked to sit around for fifteen minutes to monitor for complications. Everything was finished in less than an hour.
A little under a week after vaccination, I can say I experienced almost no side effects aside from a slightly sore arm, along with a little bit of fatigue on the day of vaccination. All symptoms were gone after a good night’s sleep. Indeed, it felt like essentially any other vaccine I have ever received.
Now follows the question: should you, too, go and get vaccinated as soon as possible, even if it means receiving Sinovac?
The answer will of course vary according to your age group, your medical history and your travel needs. But if those are not relevant factors, I do want to offer some further thoughts about the three most common concerns people have about Sinovac.
The most frequently heard cause of concern is that Sinovac may not be sufficiently effective at preventing illness. The efficacy rates have indeed varied across the world. But even the lowest number, at around 50% efficacy in Brazil, is still considered good enough for emergency approval. (Indeed, regular flu shots — and nobody complains about those — is on average only 40% effective.)
Is Sinovac the best vaccine available? No, and no one should say that it is. But in real world settings, it looks like it works well enough. The latest study among healthcare workers in Indonesia is particularly promising, showing that it is 98% effective at preventing deaths. Turkey announced in April that Sinovac is ‘significantly effective.’ An experiment in the town of Serrana in Brazil, where 97% of adults were vaccinated with Sinovac, saw coronavirus deaths falling by 70%, and it appears that none of the deaths are from those who were fully vaccinated when they contracted the virus.
Another concern is that of safety, which has been fueled by reports of side-effects. And while I can personally attest that I am doing very well after being vaccinated, no one can guarantee that Sinovac is perfectly safe all of the time for every one of us — just as that guarantee cannot be made for any vaccine.
But this should be said: the risks of an extreme complication arising from Sinovac is far less than that of falling severely ill from the coronavirus. Indeed, with 380 million doses already shipped worldwide, widespread side effects of unusual severity would already have been detected and discussed in the scientific community.
Some are also hesitant to take the Sinovac vaccine because it may not be effective at reducing transmission, and so it would not actually help in reducing the risk to others. And it is true that Sinovac’s CEO, Yin Weidong, says that the company itself does not know whether it is effective in this dimension.
Yet even if transmission cannot be prevented, being vaccinated will at the very least highly decrease your chances of needing intensive care and thus being a further burden on a healthcare system already under severe strain. That, in my opinion, is already very helpful for the country.
It’s also worth noting that in the end, Thailand’s main vaccine offering will be locally-produced AstraZeneca, and Sinovac will make up a small minority of the total inoculations. Unlike Chile, where cases have continued to surge even after a large number of Sinovac inoculations, we are not aiming to build herd immunity using Sinovac. It is merely part of a wider arsenal of vaccines.
Promoting acceptance of the Sinovac vaccine will inevitably open me up to accusations that I am trying to be a cheerleader for the Thai government, or for China. This is nothing of the sort. What I am trying to do is twofold: to encourage people not to delay vaccination so as to save lives, and to support a speedy vaccination program in Thailand that will save livelihoods.
In the end, of course, when to take the vaccine is an individual choice. But barring other relevant barriers, I would urge you to take the advice of the medical authorities and to take the first one that is available. This, I believe, is the most important thing all of us can do to protect ourselves, our healthcare system, and Thailand as a whole.
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