AstraZeneca admits ‘complicated’ Thai vaccine production launch

Covid-19 vaccines updates

AstraZeneca has admitted that the launch of Covid-19 vaccine production at Siam Bioscience, the Thai pharmaceutical company owned by the billionaire King Maha Vajiralongkorn, had been “complicated”, but said it aimed to supply Thailand with up to 5m-6m doses per month.

The concession by the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker comes as Thailand struggles with a record wave of coronavirus infections and a shortage of available vaccines, which have fuelled public anger against Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government. 

“Our vaccine is a ‘biologic’ product that starts with growing ‘living’ ingredients. Its production is complicated,” AstraZeneca’s managing director for Thailand James Teague said in an “open letter to the people of Thailand” distributed to journalists on Saturday morning.

“The number of doses in each ‘harvested’ batch is never completely certain, especially in the early stages of a new supply chain,” said Teague. “Even with that context, our projections show that in months with uninterrupted manufacturing we can supply five to six million doses in Thailand.” 

The 5m-6m production target is lower than the 10m doses per month of which Thai officials had spoken in the past. However, it is in line with a commitment floated by AstraZeneca in a leaked letter to Thailand’s Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul.

The delays in production at Siam Bioscience, a novice vaccine producer and AstraZeneca’s sole south-east Asian production hub for the jabs, have been felt in other countries that were counting on imports from Thailand, including the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan.

In Thailand, government critics have attacked the decision to rely primarily on a single provider — AstraZeneca, which has promised to deliver up to 61m vaccine doses — even as doing so risks prosecution under the country’s repressive royal defamation law. The Prayuth government has said it may block some exports of the jab.

Teague said AstraZeneca had delivered 9m doses of its vaccine, which Thailand began administering in June, and would supply another 2.3m to the country’s public health ministry next week. 

He said AstraZeneca was delivering vaccines made by Siam Bioscience “in the fastest possible timeframe”, but was also “scouring” the more than 20 supply chains in its worldwide manufacturing network to find additional doses. 

“A global supply crunch for Covid-19 vaccines and shortages of the materials and components required to produce the vaccine make it difficult to provide certainty today, but we are hopeful of importing additional doses in the months ahead,” he said.

Thailand has to date reported more than 453,000 Covid cases and 3,930 deaths, more than half of which have been recorded over the past month. The country reported 14,260 new infections on Saturday.

Teague’s letter paid tribute to “our brothers and sisters” in Thailand and across south-east Asia, where many countries have instituted lockdowns in the face of rising fatalities in recent weeks. 

Thailand has fully vaccinated just over 5 per cent of its population of almost 70m, a lower rate than its poorer neighbours Cambodia and Laos.

Thai celebrities have joined opposition politicians in attacking the Prayuth government’s handling of the pandemic in recent days, prompting a threat from Thai police to prosecute critics of its vaccine policy. 

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