Thailand has ordered millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines from AstraZeneca and Sinovac Biotech. However, misinformation about safety concerns may hinder the country’s planned mass immunization campaign.
By Umair Jamal
Thailand has rolled out plans to produce millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines domestically, in addition to purchasing some doses from AstraZeneca and Sinovac. Though the Thai government has not confirmed when its mass inoculation program will begin, it’s now working to address public concerns about vaccine side effects stemming in part to misinformation spread largely online.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha warned in mid-January that all COVID-19 vaccines will have to meet safety and efficacy standards before they are rolled out for mass use, emphasizing that reports of serious side effects in other countries require more in-depth analysis.
As Thailand works to bring a recent outbreak of COVID-19 under control, combating misinformation regarding vaccine side effects will go a long way towards changing people’s attitudes about vaccine safety.
Public health survey results from late January are encouraging in this regard, as they show that a majority of Thais plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine despite any safety concerns.
Thailand rushes to sign contracts with major coronavirus vaccine makers
Thailand’s vaccine strategy focuses on the local production of the AstraZeneca vaccine with tests of the first domestically-made batches of the drug likely to be completed by the end of May. Thailand may also export some of these AstraZeneca doses to other Southeast Asian countries.
Explaining the significance of the locally-produced vaccine to meet Thailand’s needs, Nakorn Premsri, the country’s vaccine chief, told The Financial Times that it was a matter of “national security.”
In November, Thailand’s Siam Bioscience, which is owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, announced a first deal with AstraZeneca to produce 26 million doses of the vaccine. In the coming months, Thailand will have the capacity to produce 18 million doses of AstraZeneca coronavirus per month. In total, Thailand has plans for around 61 million locally-made doses, which is sufficient for 30.5 million people, or a little more than half of Thailand’s adult population.
Thailand is also expecting a small quantity of internationally-produced AstraZeneca vaccine. The first 50,000 internationally-produced doses of the vaccine are likely to arrive in Thailand in February, with 100,000 more expected in the next few months. But amid reports that supply issues in Europe might cause delays in vaccine shipments, Thailand’s domestic production push will only see more attention in the coming weeks.
Under a separate agreement, Thailand has also ordered two million doses of China’s Sinovac Biotech vaccine. While the drug has yet to be approved by the WHO, the Thai government has rushed to sign a deal with the company and will push its local production as well.
Reports about safety concerns become central to Thailand’s vaccine rollout
Earlier this month, Prayut announced that he won’t permit the use of COVID-19 vaccines until they are proven to be safe and sought to reassure the public that the government is taking reports of vaccine side effects in other countries seriously.
“We have to wait for experts to determine whether they have anything to do with the vaccines, or whether there were other factors such as underlying health conditions or age,” Prayut wrote on his official Facebook page.
Public concern over vaccine safety issues is rising globally, linked in part to misinformation that has damaged the public’s trust. The latest global survey of vaccine confidence, published in the Lancet medical journal, showed vaccine trust remains a major problem globally and the WHO has listed vaccine hesitancy as one of its top 10 global health threats.
The threat posed by vaccine hesitancy is real: dipping levels of trust in vaccines and armed resistance to inoculation campaigns have allowed preventable diseases such as polio and measles to survive in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Thai government appears to have realized that it must counter the threat of misinformation while also adequately addressing real concerns regarding vaccine safety.
Tanarak Plipat, deputy director-general of the Department of Disease Control (DDC), recently emphasized the safety of vaccines, including AstraZeneca, saying the drugs have been approved by countries with rigorous registration regulations that require exhaustive research and testing.
Regarding vaccine side effects, Tanarak said that people should only trust information from reliable sources. He added that side effects may include body aches, mild fevers and fatigue following inoculation.
Prayuth has threatened to prosecute anyone who shares false information about coronavirus vaccines. “Do not blame me for threatening legal action,” Prayuth said. “I need to keep people’s confidence and trust in government.”
Survey shows Thais want to be vaccinated despite safety concerns
A January survey carried out by Suan Dusit Rajabhat University shows that a majority of Thais want to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The study surveyed 1,570 people across the country online and found that 66% of respondents wanted to be vaccinated but would rather wait to see if there are any side effects. In addition, 20.7% of respondents wanted to be vaccinated right away, while 13.3% did not want a vaccine at all.
While Thais’ rising confidence in vaccines is encouraging, a large population is still wary of potential side effects. When asked what concerned them most about getting vaccinated, 82.71% mentioned side effects, 71.96% mentioned vaccine effectiveness, 54.67% mentioned vaccine availability and 38.60% mentioned issues related to the type and brand of vaccines imported by Thailand. Regarding their trust in the efficacy of the vaccines against coronavirus, 63.88% said they were fairly confident.
In the coming weeks and months, the government should ramp up investment in public information campaigns as well as distribution infrastructure to build people’s trust in the vaccine and counteract misinformation campaigns.