AstraZeneca – Vaccine buy bears up to scrutiny
Thank you Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Progressive Movement, for helping shed the light on the initiative of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in the founding of a pharmaceutical firm, Siam Bioscience, 12 years ago, which was not widely known among Thais outside medical circles.
With his foresight and desire for people to have access to affordable and effective medicines and reduce dependence on imported pharmaceutical products, the late King founded Siam Bioscience with a registered capital of about five billion baht and, later on, the Apexcela marketing firm.
Recently, Siam Bioscience entered into a contract to procure 26 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine from Oxford-AstraZeneca of Britain and to produce 200 million doses of the vaccine each year, with the help of technology transfer, for domestic use and distribution to other countries in the region.
In fact, Mr Thanathorn criticised the vaccine deal in a Facebook livestream talk, titled “Royally-sponsored vaccine: Who Gains, who loses”, on Jan 19.
He made the unwarranted suggestion that the deal may benefit Siam Bioscience at the expense of taxpayers.
The controversial talk provoked a stream of retaliation from his opponents and some in the medical community familiar with the issue, plus a lese majeste charge from the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society which finds Mr Thanathorn’s comment offensive to the monarchy.
Essentially, Thanathorn raised a few valid questions about the vaccine deal between Siam Bioscience and Oxford-AstraZeneca, from the perspective of someone unaware of the background of the deal. In other words, he did not do his homework before talking publicly.
The questions asked include: Why was only Siam Bioscience allowed to procure the vaccine, and not the other pharmaceutical companies? Why procure the vaccine from just one source? Why was the vaccine to be procured for just select groups of people and not for the entire population? And why was the government giving taxpayers’ money, amounting to about 500 million baht, to Siam Bioscience under its vaccine development programme?
The answers to these questions have already been given by viorologist Yong Pooworavan of Chulalongkorn University and Nakhon Premsri, director of the National Vaccine Institute, among others.
Take for instance the question of why only 26 million doses were sourced from AstraZeneca, well short of Thailand’s population of about 66 million.
Dr Yong said youth under 16 should not be vaccinated because clinical trials have not been conducted among youth and because young people are less vulnerable to infection if they protect themselves by strictly observing the basic safety measures.
The vaccine is not a panacea, but a supplementary measure on top of basic safety precautions such as wearing face masks when outdoors, regularly washing hands and observing social distancing, according to Dr Yong.
Also, it’s a sellers’ market right now. Hence, most of the shots produced by Pfizer and AstraZeneca have been bought in advance by rich Western countries. The soonest that Thailand will get hold of additional doses from AstraZeneca, on top of the first 26 million, is the last quarter of this year.
The most interesting and little known aspect about how Siam Bioscience won the deal from Oxford-AstraZeneca has nothing to do with government help, but instead was in part down to close connections between Oxford and the Siam Cement Group (SCG), a long-time business partner of the Crown Property Bureau.
SCG also dug into its coffers to lay down over 100 million baht as deposit for the advance order for the AstraZeneca vaccine, with a condition that the down payment is not refundable no matter the results of the vaccine trials. This arrangement is not possible for the government to undertake.
With Oxford’s help and Siam Bioscience’s business philosophy of helping society rather than just pursuing profit like other private firms, coupled with its ability to produce significant quantities of the vaccine, the company was chosen.
Technology transfer began on Oct 7 last year when a sample of a 1 cc vaccine cell was sent to Siam Bioscience to be cultured and expanded to produce up to 2,000 litres of vaccine within six months.
Also, the 500 million baht fund provided by the government to Siam Bioscience is not for free as the company is obliged to produce vaccines for Thais.
Another argument is that Thailand is not in a urgent need of more vaccines than already ordered because the pandemic situation here is less serious than in many other countries.
For a capitalist businessman like Mr Thanathorn whose business philosophy is to make money — the more profit the better — it may be unthinkable that some companies make helping society their number one priority.
Mr Thanathorn is complaining about being gagged by the lese majeste charge for speaking out about the vaccine deal. That is only partially true. Had he done his homework and not implied that the monarchy is benefiting from the deal with the misleading headline of his livestream talk, he would not have landed himself in such trouble in the first place.
And a security guard at Icon Siam would not have lost his job for allegedly wrestling a poster from a lone protester that carried a message based on Thanathorn’s biased criticism of the vaccine deal.
Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.