The prime minister today sought to dispel reports that the European maker of Thailand’s vaccine supply was having second thoughts, insisting its rollout would go forward as planned.
Indirectly dismissing reports that AstraZeneca was worried about being dragged into Thai politics, Prayuth Chan-o-cha said that the firm had settled on Siam Bioscience, a biotech firm under palace control at the center of growing controversy, after surveying potential domestic manufacturers and finding it had the highest standards.
Prayuth asked critics of the deal – a related protest was staged just today – to stop linking the firm with the monarchy, despite the fact it is owned by the Crown Property Bureau.
AstraZeneca, which reportedly backed out of a Friday news conference due to its growing reservations, has not responded to messages left with its offices in Bangkok and Europe.
This afternoon, student activists gathered for a downtown rally outside the offices of Siam Bioscience. Protesters including Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and Benja Apan, whose protest last week grabbed headlines, holding signs demanding transparency over the billions of baht funneled to the company. They said the government was misusing taxpayer money in an attempt to give credit to the monarchy.
On Thursday, Benja was assaulted by a mall guard for a similar protest. Since November, at least 54 people have been charged with royal defamation.
Asking questions about the company, the sole manufacturer of Thailand’s domestic vaccine supply under an international knowledge-sharing program it has committed at least THB 6 billion (US$200 million), is a dangerous proposition.
Also last week, opposition figure Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was accused of royal defamation days after he called for transparency into the decision to award domestic production to a single firm controlled by the palace.
By Friday, there were reports that the British-Swedish firm was reconsidering its arrangement with Thailand and Siam Bioscience rather than be seen as a party to Thai political warfare.
Prayuth said that charging Thanathorn, activists and others with lese majeste, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail per offense, wasn’t done with malice or bias. He said they had been given many warnings but continued to violate the law.
“Thanathorn’s actions can be interpreted as royal defamation, along with the sedition charges and the Computer Crime Act – and he will face all,” Prayuth said. “Don’t take too much interest in these people. If they think they don’t violate any laws, they can fight through the justice system.”
Thanathorn was charged with lese majeste days after he broadcast an online discussion criticizing the government’s lack of transparency. The former head of the former Future Forward Party led a strong progressive challenge to the military’s grip on power, but the courts barred him from ever holding office and later banned him from public life for a decade after his party’s strong showing in the 2019 election.
Prayuth told the parliament today that he would show the contracts signed by AstraZeneca and Siam Bioscience for transparency’s sake.
In true Prayuth form, he warned other politicians to beware of their comments on vaccine development and avoid linking it with politics.
Public health official Sopon Mekthon today said that 50,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine purchased from Italy would arrive within the first week of February. It has been approved for emergency use. Betraying his romantic heart, he said the first jabs could come on Valentine’s Day.
Medical personnel, especially those in high-risk areas and the southern region, are among the first eligible to receive the vaccine, as well as people with underlying conditions and those 60 and up. Sopon said inoculation will be voluntary.
According to plan, 150,000 doses will follow in March and April before Thailand’s releases 26 million homemade doses of AstraZeneca in May. The kingdom also expects the first batch of 200,000 doses from China’s Sinovac Biotech in February followed by another 800,000 in March and 1 million in April.
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