Thailand has started its Covid vaccination campaign amid concerns over the supply of doses, which are mainly being produced locally by a royal-owned company that has no prior experience of making vaccines.
Thailand aims to vaccinate 70% of the population before the end of the year, and is relying primarily on AstraZeneca doses produced by Siam Bioscience, a company owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The company is also due to supply vaccines to eight other countries in the region.
The Thai government, which is struggling to contain the country’s worst outbreak since the pandemic began, has faced growing criticism for being too dependent on one supplier and for a sluggish vaccine rollout. As of 5 June, about 4% of the population had received at least one vaccine dose.
On Monday morning, 986 vaccine centres were opened across the country, and 143,000 people were vaccinated within two hours, according to officials, mostly older people and people with underlying health conditions.
“The government will ensure that everyone is vaccinated,” the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, said in televised comments.
Frustration over the speed of the rollout has grown over recent months, as new, more infectious variants have spread in prisons, factories and densely populated areas of Bangkok. While Thailand had recorded fewer than 29,000 cases by the start of April, its cumulative caseload has since risen to almost 180,000.
The government has stopped short of imposing a full lockdown, but has shut schools and encouraged people to work from home where possible.
Prof Anucha Apisarnthanarak, the head of the infectious diseases division at Thammasat University, said Thailand’s vaccination target was ambitious and would be difficult to achieve by the end of the year.
It could take between nine and 18 months to vaccinate 50 million people, he said, “depending on how quickly they run the programme and how aggressively they do it”. Including private hospitals in the rollout could reduce this time, he said.
Officials plan to administer 6 million doses in June, including some Chinese-made Sinovac doses. However, concerns over supplies grew last week after several hospitals postponed appointments, stating they did not have enough vaccine doses. One hospital group said the delay would affect 40,000 people.
The Philippines also confirmed to Reuters that delivery of the first batches of a promised 17m doses had been delayed by several weeks and reduced in size.
It is not clear to what extent other countries in the region might be affected. Malaysia’s health director general, Noor Hisham Abdullah, said on Monday that the country’s delivery plan was still on schedule.
The Indonesian health ministry’s vaccine spokesperson, Siti Nadia Tarmizi, said no information on the delivery was available.
Siam Bioscience did not respond to a request for comment.