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Thailand to open borders early, taking calculated risk

Prayuth strives to balance economic and health needs

People receive their first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine inside a gymnasium at Thammasat University, in Pathum Thani, Thailand, on June 7.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand has given up achieving herd immunity as it races toward fully reopening its borders to vaccinated globe-trotters, and as Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha weighs economic imperatives against risks to public health.

Prayuth on Wednesday launched an ambitious plan to start accepting visitors to all parts of Thailand in 120 days, but ongoing vaccine shortages have evoked skepticism among Thai citizens.

"I know this decision comes with some risk because, when we open the country, there will be an increase in infections, no matter how good our precautions," the prime minister said in a televised address. "But, I think, when we take the economic needs of people into consideration, the time has now come for us to take that calculated risk."

The government's road map targets an average of 10 million shots to be administered every month beginning in July. If all goes as planned, this will allow almost 50 million people to receive at least their first shot by early October, before vaccinated foreign tourists are welcomed to roam the kingdom.

"The first shot already enormously increases your body's ability to cope with an infection and can save your life," Prayuth said.

A successful opening in October could help Thailand salvage its busy tourist season, which usually begins in mid- to late November, when the monsoon rains subside.

The government has contracted for 105.5 million doses, roughly 60% of which are to be the AstraZeneca vaccine, and most of these supplies are to come from Siam Bioscience. The biopharmaceutical company owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn in November obtained an exclusive Southeast Asia license from U.K. drugmaker AstraZeneca to manufacture the vaccine.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha tells the kingdom that "I know this decision comes with some risk because there will be an increase in infections, no matter how good our precautions." (Photo by Masayuki Yuda)

According to a report published in medical journal The Lancet, a single AtraZeneca dose has an efficacy of 76% against symptomatic COVID-19 in the first 90 days.

Prayuth's address signifies a dramatic turnaround in Thailand's vaccine and reopening strategy. The government originally planned to reopen the kingdom at the outset of 2022, after reaching herd immunity by giving two jabs to 70% of all residents. The new plan brings forward the reopening date by a month and a half and makes do with nearly half the jabs required in the previous plan.

The long-ailing economy prompted the rethink. Since March, Thailand has been suffering through a third wave of infections and subsequent business lockdowns. No statistical data on the economic toll is yet available, but Bangkok's once-lively streets show the story. One by one, shops and restaurants have been permanently closing down.

"We've somehow survived through two waves," the owner of a Japanese restaurant said, "but this third wave has really hit us hard." The restaurant this month closed indefinitely.

In May, the Bank of Thailand made economic projections for three scenarios. If herd immunity is achieved by the first quarter of 2022, it forecasts growth of 2% in 2021 and 4.7% in 2022.

A herd immunity delay to the third quarter would slow the rates to 1.5% and 2.8%, while a further lag till the fourth quarter would bring growth down to 1% and 1.1%.

The forecasts show how vulnerable Thailand is without tourism and the businesses that flourish because of it. Pre-COVID, this sector accounted for 20% of the kingdom's gross domestic product. Without it in 2020, Southeast Asia's second largest economy shrank 6.1%.

For Prayuth, whose term expires in 2023, even the central bank's best-case scenario spells potential doom. "We cannot wait for a time when everyone is fully vaccinated with two shots to open the country or for when the world is free of the virus," the prime minister said. "We must be ready to live with some risk and just try to keep it at a manageable level, and let people go back to being able to earn a living."

Lowering the inoculation bar reflects the uncertainty surrounding vaccine deliveries amid rising international demand. Prayuth himself recognizes the issue.

"I am the top executive in this war against the coronavirus," he stated. "I must apologize for the problems that have happened, and I take all responsibility." He was specifically referring to vaccine shortages that resulted in complaints from the public on Tuesday, one day before he addressed the nation.

"The vaccine deliveries have taken some time because they had to wait for time-consuming production and quality checks," he said. "Many countries have faced the same problem."

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration on Monday announced a plan to delay vaccination programs at 25 specially set up locations. A number of public and private hospitals also announced postponements for people with reservations for this week.

At Monday's news conference, Bangkok Gov. Aswin Khwanmuang said the city had already used up "nearly all of the vaccines allocated by the government."

As Siam Bioscience has no previous experience manufacturing vaccines, there is speculation that it may be having teething problems in ramping up production. A government official at the news conference denied any production issues and said the supply shortage is "temporary and will be resolved soon."

But the shortages have cast enough doubt to make Thai citizens skeptical of the government's handling of the vaccination program.

Siam Bioscience makes the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at this location outside Bangkok. It is Southeast Asia's only producer of the vaccine   © Reuters

Thailand still has a lese-majeste law, which makes it a serious offense to demean or attack senior members of the royal family. Discussion of anything relating to Siam Bioscience is therefore fraught. A former opposition party leader was charged in January after raising questions about the company's exclusive production during a Facebook livestream. A maximum prison sentence of 15 years can be handed down to those found guilty of lese-majeste, with sequential terms possible for those judged to have committed multiple offenses.

Siam Bioscience's vaccine exports have come under scrutiny. Reuters reported that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen last Friday said delivery of 10 million shots from Thailand faces a delay because, she said, Thailand is prioritizing its domestic needs.

There have also been reports of delayed deliveries to the Philippines and Malaysia.

On June 2, AstraZeneca said vaccines produced by Siam Bioscience would be ready for export in July.

Deputy government spokesperson Traisuree Taisaranakul tweeted late on Saturday that there is no official policy to block AstraZeneca exports. She quoted Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul saying vaccine exports and distribution are the domain of Siam Bioscience, not the government.

Siam Bioscience has remained silent and not revealed if there have been any production glitches. Many of those who since May 1 have registered for shots now face an uncertain wait.

All of Southeast Asia is off to a slow vaccination start. Only 7% of the Thai population has received at least one dose. In the Philippines, the figure is 4%, and in Indonesia it's 7%. With vaccines coming over the horizon, a major concern is variants, particularly those that spread quickly.

Additional reporting by Yohei Muramatsu and Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat in Bangkok

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