Fears for Thailand’s critical vaccination campaign which now looks like it will fall well short of the government’s target to vaccinate 70% of the population by the end of 2021. The virus and the surge caused by its Delta variant is rapidly creating a public health crisis, economic crisis and now political one at the same time. On Saturday and Sunday, it appeared that the government was scrambling to deal effectively with all three as even opposition party MPs realised that now is a time to be constructive as they called for an export ban and full clarification of the government’s deal with AstraZeneca. On Saturday, the head of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), General Natthapon Nakpanich, held talks with TV stations on news reporting and presentation of the crisis.

Under fire Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul, on Saturday night, insisted that he had the support of Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha and he was fighting to extract 10 million doses of AstraZeneca a month from the UK Swedish firm as controversy has arisen over the details of the contract between the pharmaceutical giant and Thai authorities which threatens to undermine public confidence in the government. Thailand’s virus crisis meanwhile has deepened with infection numbers rising to five figures, the army being deployed to go door to door in Bangkok’s heavily populated districts where a family of seven was found this weekend, all infected with the virus but without receiving treatment or medical assistance since February. The emerging political controversy over the government’s relationship with AstraZeneca and the shortfall in vaccine doses has provoked fury both from the opposition benches and the public but perhaps most importantly, it means that Thailand’s plan to fully vaccinate 50 million people and reopen the country is in danger of being left in disarray.

Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul has found himself in hot water but has come out fighting after a leaked letter from AstraZeneca to his ministry has emerged dated the 25th June 2021 which appears to question the government and the minister’s claims with regards to supply agreements with the UK Swedish giant. It comes as Deputy Minister of Public Health Dr Satit Pitutacha (top right) this week, urged that the contract between the government and AstraZeneca be looked at to ascertain the facts and appeared, for a time, to be in conflict with his senior minister. The news raises disturbing questions about the country’s critical vaccination efforts as public ire erupted on Friday with a violent protest at the Ministry of Public Health in Nonthaburi (left). On Saturday, the army was deployed to districts in Bangkok to detect infections with a report from Sai Mai of a seven-member family, who were all reported as infected but could not find a hospital bed or assistance (left top).

The virus crisis in Thailand has escalated significantly in the last 48 hours as the number of infections on Sunday reached 11,397 with 101 deaths. The death tally on Saturday spiked to 147 people with the daily infection tally reaching 10,082, the first time it has reached five figures but something that has long been forecast.

The rising level of infection has seen the Prime Minister, who had just returned to work on Friday at Government House, order the army into the fray as over 200 house to house teams are to take part in an intensive operation in central Bangkok to identify infected people by calling door to door.

Family of seven in Sai Mai left to their own devices since February as the army is deployed in Bangkok

One family in Sai Mai, which was identified on Saturday, comprised of seven people in one household, all infected since it is believed the father of the house, a market seller, came down with the infection in February this year but despite being told that the family had the virus, it appears no one was offered a bed or taken to hospital.

On Saturday, health teams with an oxygen unit arrived at the house after the man’s 56-year-old partner was reported to be experiencing shortness of breath and was confirmed with low oxygen levels. The house is also home to a 2-year-old who suffers from congenital asthma.

More stringent controls and measures are in place and further announcements are due for the capital and surrounding provinces in the coming hours

On Friday night, the Royal Gazette reported even more stringent controls for Bangkok and a further nine provinces. Gatherings of more than five people are prohibited.

It is understood that further measures are being considered and drafted to combat the still escalating public health emergency on the ground.

The stricter controls have led to speculation that there could be a confrontation between protesters in the capital on Sunday and security services as public frustration over the government’s handling of the pandemic has grown with a disturbing political scandal emerging over the agreement between the government and the Swedish UK firm AstraZeneca.

AstraZeneca letter is a political bombshell that comes amid confusion between the written contract and some sort of understanding between officials 

New information in the form of a letter from a senior executive at the firm has come to light suggesting that the Ministry of Public Health had accepted a lower level of vaccine distribution this year compared to official government targets.

It must be pointed out that the affair is clouded with confusion with suggestions of some sort of understanding that a commitment to deliver 61 million doses of the vaccine from the Siam Bioscience plant in Pathum Thani would be achieved.

It was a claim repeatedly made by the government in recent months as it put forward its plans to administer 100 million doses and vaccinate 70% of the country’s population by the end of the year.

Vaccination campaign now on course for only 55 million doses by the end of 2021 with the main proportion of doses being the Chinese Sinovac vaccine

It now looks like it will be just over half this and that the most significant proportion of the vaccines will be the far more expensive and far less effective Sinovac vaccine which is now openly discounted by authorities in Singapore.

Sources in official circles are reporting a continued soaring of infection levels in the Thai capital and its adjacent provinces.

This has prompted General Prayut to mobilise the army and deploy it together with public health workers and other officials over the weekend.

Door to door teams seeking out infected people in Bangkok as the army co-operates with health workers

Teams will visit houses door by door in the city districts of Bangkok and will use fast tests to identify sufferers of the virus.

Those who are confirmed with the disease and who also display significant symptoms will be removed to field hospitals or other available medical facilities.

In addition, the health squads will also be distributing herbal medicines to infected people and fever-reducing drugs to people identified as suitable for home quarantine where the appropriate protocols will be explained to individual households.

The government has also approved for sale over the counter antigen test kits to allow for self-testing at home after the kits were approved by the Thai Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

Sale of self-testing Antigen kits to be tightly regulated by authorities but are being made available from public health clinics and other outlets

However, it is reported that the sale of these test kits will still be limited to certain approved pharmacies, government health clinics and offices at this time.

Authorities fear the kits will be targeted by profiteers and have simultaneously introduced draconian measures and penalties to deal with anyone dealing and hoarding these kits for marketing purposes at this time of severe crisis.

Leaked letter from AstraZeneca of the 25th June is a political bombshell for Minister Anutin

A leaked document has emerged from the Ministry of Public Health of a letter dated the 25th June 2021 in which the AstraZeneca Vice President for Global Affairs, Mr Sjord Hubben, suggested that the company had only contracted to supply 3 million doses per month.

A copy of this letter is understood to have been also sent to Minister of Public Health Mr Anutin Charnvirakul and the Director of the Department of Disease Control Dr Opas Karnkawinpong.

Growing public ire overflowed on Friday evening at the Public Health Ministry in Nonthaburi

The controversy that has arisen is over the arrangements or contracts in place between the Ministry of Public Health and AstraZeneca has become heated over continuing obfuscation and delays in delivery of vaccines promised by the government and badly needed for the country’s struggling vaccination drive. 

This growing public ire led to physical protests and anger towards the Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul outside the ministry on Friday evening where two activists were arrested and one policeman hospitalised.

On Saturday, Minister Anutin, at the heart of the controversy, visited Police General Hospital to show his support for the policeman.

Anutin reveals he replied to the pharmaceutical firm 5 days later demanding 10 million doses

On Saturday night, the government and the minister released further details on the ongoing talks and communications with AstraZeneca.

It now emerges that Minister Anutin replied to the UK Swedish firm 5 days later and insisted that Thailand needed to be supplied with 10 million doses per month.

On Saturday, as a growing political crisis swirled around the government’s relationship with the vaccine manufacturer, the minister briefed the media and suggested that Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha supported his position.

Lawyer and human rights activist arrested

The protest on Friday evening was led by Thai lawyer and human rights activist Shinawat Chankrachang who was arrested with another protester when violent scuffles broke out between an irate crowd that had gathered outside the Ministry of Public Health and police at the scene who were tasked with maintaining public order.

A ministry spokesman Dr Rungrueng Kitphati, while confirming and commenting on the incident, said that at this time public protests were not the correct approach as the country faces a growing medical emergency.

Dangerous and febrile online environment with distorted information and rumours spreading publicly

The public alarm and anger over the virus situation has led to an active and febrile environment online which is currently feeding off itself with facts intermingled with gross distortions and outlandish claims.

On Saturday, in the Sai Mai area of Bangkok, there was no such distortion as medical workers donned hazmat suits to enter the home where a family of seven were all found to be infected with the COVID-19 virus.

56-year-old mother of infected family receives oxygen as medics arrive in Bangkok’s Sai Mai 

A woman at the home, identified only as 36-year-old Ms Aom Jai, was particularly concerned for the 56-year-old mother of the house who required oxygen after blood tests were performed by medics.

Her husband, the father of the family, was first diagnosed with COVID-19 in February and suffers from congenital heart disease including high blood pressure. He is 60 years old.

They told medical helpers that even though they had been diagnosed with the disease in February this year, they had not been offered hospital beds from hospitals or medical agencies.

They said that people would ask them for information and then quickly disappear.

Medics confirmed that no one in the infected family was being treated with effective medication to counter the disease.

Community leader in Bangkok urges the government to come down to the level of the people to help

This was confirmed by Mr Ekaphop Leungprasert, the leader of a local community organisation called Survive – Sai Mai must Survive.

Sai Mai is a densely populated area of Bangkok, one of 50 to the north of the city centre near the canal. The area is the most populous in the city but has, in the past, been noted as having a refuse problem, particularly near the water.

Mr Ekaphop said that there were at least 1,000 people in the area waiting on a bed or field hospital place. He implored the government to come down to the level of the people to assist them at this time.

‘No one in the family is currently on antiretroviral therapy. Now I want to plead with the government to help distribute medicines like ‘Favipiravir’. Comes down to people who are sick waiting for a bed and keeping to themselves at home. Because now there are still 1,000 residual patients who have not received treatment and are waiting for a bed.’

The community leader said that no one had shown any interest, up to this point, in helping families find the appropriate care.

Minister assures the public again that more vaccines will be found and delivered amid the standoff

On Saturday, at Police General Hospital as the controversy over AstraZeneca continued, Minister Anutin assured reporters that efforts were being made to expedite the delivery of vaccines and to find a solution to what appears to be a growing standoff between the pharmaceutical giant and the government.

News of the deployment of the army to identify infected patients was confirmed by a spokesman from the Ministry of Defence who suggested that the Prime Minister’s office was also reaching out to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) to help make the move a success.

Military leaders hold a meeting to discuss deployment within the capital to deal with an escalating crisis

On Saturday, Deputy Defence Minister Chaichan Changmongkol and Deputy Defense Secretary-general Nat Intaracharoen were meeting with representatives of the army’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) and police to iron out operational details.

This operation will be in addition to 606 worker’s camps currently also under the control of the army and police after prevention measures against the Delta virus-driven surge of COVID-19 were taken at the end of June.

In the meantime, the Prime Minister has also urged the army and security services to redouble efforts at protecting Thailand’s borders as the crisis worsens.

Part of the plan being rolled out will involve the army and security services providing transport to move patients to hospitals and medical facilities including those outside Bangkok where circumstances dictate, particularly if the patients have links with other provinces.

Top official has meetings with TV station news chiefs on how news of the crisis is being reported

On Saturday also, the Secretary-general of the National Security Council and director of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) General Natthapon Nakpanich held meetings with top executives at leading Thai TV channels to discuss the presentation of news commentary linked with this crisis.

This follows outcry during the week from human rights activists and media representative groups after it was discovered that the renewed Emergency Decree had strengthened the power of officials to prosecute the media and social media commentators under the law if any media outlet is seen to be stirring fear or panic due to the current crisis as well as attempts to distort the news.

Media representative groups object strongly

The new regulation does not impose a duty on officials to identify first and then issue a warning concerning such reports to have them removed. Instead, it allows for immediate prosecution and other steps to remove offending content which could see offenders facing up to 2 years in prison if convicted.

The provision under Section 9 of the Emergency Decree was condemned as an attack on the press and freedom of speech by a range of organisations this week including the National Press Council of Thailand, the News Broadcasting Council of Thailand, the Thai Journalists Association, the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, the Society for Online News Providers and the National Union of Journalists.

Officials being urged to fight back against the challenging situation at this time and to take action

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office on Saturday through spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri confirmed the latest moves in response to the virus. 

He said the aim was to bring COVID-19 screening services to the public as many people in recent weeks have lost access to such services due to the scale of the emergency.

He said that officials were being tasked to fight back against limitations to deal more effectively with the challenging situation.

Debt moratorium for borrowers in lockdown areas

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has also given orders that a national debt moratorium for two months is to be put in place for areas currently under lockdown in association with the national bank network.

On Friday night, Minister Of Public Health Anutin denied that there was any conflict between him and his deputy at the ministry, Dr Satit.

The senior minister was asked by reporters if it was true that Dr Satit was invited to withdraw from the government over the controversy that had sprung up, he replied that the deputy public health minister was a committed politician and did not seek to create division.

Junior minister this week urged the public to check the contract signed with AstraZeneca just recently

The controversy blew up when Dr Satit Pitutecha, the Deputy Minister of Public Health and a member of the Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest, gave a media interview in which he suggested that it would be May 2022 before AstraZeneca would fulfil the Thai government’s order for 61 million doses of the vaccine.

The junior minister also appeared to suggest that this was in line with the contract signed between the government and the UK Swedish giant. He suggested that people should check the contract.

The media revelation is understood to have sparked a furious reaction from Minister Anutin who is believed to have phoned Dr Satit seeking clarification.

The junior minister is reported to have confirmed that he had given the interview and suggested that the facts of the matter should be aired openly.

Minister for Public Health Anutin insisted that an agreement to deliver 61 million doses by the end of 2021 was in place with the UK Swedish firm

The senior minister pointed out that the late delivery of the vaccine doses was at odds with the national plan where the government had committed to administering 100 million doses by the end of 2021.

He later explained to a media source that there was an understanding that the pharmaceutical company would deliver the vaccines as promised by the end of the year.

‘Because AstraZeneca also confirmed that it will try to deliver the vaccine in time as originally scheduled. But if it has to be postponed, it won’t take long. At the beginning of 2022, they should be able to deliver 61 million doses, which should not take too long. Or probably not until the second half of the year,’ he said.

Dr Satit was to give a press conference on Saturday but changed his mind insisting he was being truthful

It was also reported that the junior minister had scheduled a press conference to retract his original comments on Thursday but later changed his mind and insisted that what he was saying was true.

‘I continue to tell the public the truth, and AZ (Astrazeneca) accepts it without denying it. This is the fact and what happened confirms that I have provided the correct information to the people according to the changing situation,’ Dr Satit, the deputy minister said.

Opposition Move Forward MP says Deputy Minister of Public Health was being pressured not to fully disclose the agreement with AstraZeneca

The questions followed earlier comments from Mr Wirot Lakkhanaadison, a Move Forward MP who has fought an aggressive campaign to have full disclosure of the contract between AstraZeneca and the government aired publicly.

The party has reportedly received a copy of the contract on June 4th last which, it advised, was heavily redacted.

Mr Wirot stated that the Deputy Minister of Public Health Dr Satit Pitutecha was under pressure from both the Prime Minister General Prayut and his senior minister because of his revelations this week to the media.

Anutin blames the media for lack of context

Minister Anutin, meanwhile, appeared to blame the controversy on information and statements being taken out of context by the media.

‘Some people want to make it a political issue. If you want to see conflicts and divides, they would think that they will lead to conflicts. But Dr Satit has been working for a long time. If there is a problem for a long time, some media have edited what he said to present a story and are not listening to the full version. It makes people confused,’ Minister Anutin explained.

Ministry insists it has a united team

On Saturday, the ministry spokesman, Dr Rungrueng Kitphati, emphasised that Minister Anutin and his deputy Mr Satit were united and working as a team despite the controversy.

The spokesman explained that Dr Satit’s areas of responsibility were different to the senior minister including care for patients and access to treatment.

He said reports of a split or conflict within the ministry were untrue.

Letter from AstraZeneca dated the 25th June 2021 is unambiguous and refutes the government’s claims 

Nevertheless, the letter from AstraZeneca signed by Mr Sjoerd Hubben on the 25th June 2021, is unambiguous. 

It specifies that Thailand can only have access to 5 to 6 million doses out of the 15 million doses produced by the plant in Pathum Thani per month under the terms of the local contract and discussions between the firm and the ministry.

The letter puts a hole in the claim by the government that it will administer 100 million doses in 2021 of which 61 million doses would be AstraZeneca. 

Thailand now on target to deliver only 55 million doses by the end of 2021, driven by the Sinovac vaccine

The country is currently only achieving over 250,000 doses administered per day with further reports this week of vaccinations being suspended due to lack of supply.

This would leave it on course for 55 million doses at a maximum if this rate of progress is maintained.

Up to Thursday the 15th of July, the country had administered 13.823 million doses. Assuming a further 3.75 million doses in July and 7.5 million doses per month from August to December included, this would be a further 37.5 million jabs. This would be 55 million doses by the end of the year, much of it with the Sinovac vaccine whose efficacy against the Delta virus variant is questionable.

Authorities in Singapore discount Sinovac

Authorities in Singapore have announced that they will no longer count Sinovac vaccinations as part of the city state’s official tallies because of untrustworthy data and concerns over its efficacy against the Delta variant of COVID-19.

The Thai government through various officials and statements consistently suggested that AstraZeneca, through the plant in Thailand, would supply 10 million doses per month at some point.

Nevertheless, the Sinovac vaccine, with a further 10.8 million doses which the cabinet approved again last week remains the main vaccine in use in Thailand.

Chinese vaccine is three to four times more expensive than AstraZeneca according to officials

The price of the Chinese vaccine is between three and four times that of AstraZeneca. This is an incomprehensible situation for many observers and certainly for ordinary Thais.

The latest agreement for the purchase of 10.9 million Sinovac shots by the government agreed by the cabinet in recent weeks had a price tag of ฿6.1 billion or ฿560 per shot compared to a reported ฿150 for the AstraZeneca shot.

Anutin against imposing an export ban

The growing pressure over the virus emergency in the kingdom has led to calls from many quarters for the government to get tough and control exports from the plant in Pathum Thani, a move deplored last week by Minister Anutin who, quite rightly, warned that it would severely erode Thailand’s reputation abroad and in particular in Southeast Asia among its key neighbours.

The letter from AstraZeneca at the end of June also suggested that the contractual obligation between the government and the pharmaceutical company is only for 3 million doses per month and in this respect, the Global Vice President suggested that Thai authorities should be more than satisfied with achieving nearly double this amount.

Contract with AstraZeneca was only signed in May this year after cabinet ratification in March

Even more disconcerting is the date that Thailand appears to have ratified the contract with AstraZeneca.

It appears to be dated May this year and following the approval by the Thai cabinet in March.

The letter from AstraZeneca supports the analysis put forward by Deputy Minister of Public Health, Dr Satit Pitutacha, this week which also agrees with a similar assessment given by Dr Nakorn Premsri, the Director of the National Vaccine Institute, who made similar pronouncements about the shortfall in vaccine supplies on July 2nd last.

Minister Satit claims that he had earlier agreed with the claims of 10 million vaccine doses as the number of vaccines that Thailand could procure per month in total.

Political bombshell confirms long-held suspicions raised about the government vaccination programme

The revelations this week represent a bombshell and confirm ongoing suspicions raised at the outset about the vaccination plan.

It appears that the programme is far off course which will have an impact on the kingdom’s economy and ability to recover from the current catastrophic situation.

It is also clear that this controversy represents a political crisis as the opposition calls for a ban on exports but it also raises the key issue of democratic accountability.

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