COVAX Facility/Gavi

WHO praises Thailand for joining COVAX

Thailand has earned praise and support for its latest decision to join the World Health Organization’s global scheme for ensuring fair and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines known as COVAX Facility, while receiving technical and capacity building support for more direct response to the Covid-19 outbreak along with other Asean countries through the new fund by the EU worth €20 million (Bt760 million)

Dr. Richard Brown, Programme Manager of WHO Country Office for Thailand’s Health Emergencies, said during the launch of the program yesterday that Thailand is considering joining or may have already decided to join with COVAX, and this is something that WHO has strongly encouraged.

This is because the scheme is not just about individual countries having access to a great range of vaccines as the process will be more affordable, but it also means “a system” that has been established to ensure equitable access and distribution of vaccines.

“As such, it is very great that Thailand will join, as it is in a way a symbol of global public health solidarity,” said Dr. Brown.

Dr. Brown’s remarks come as the head of the National Vaccine Institute, one of the prime organisations tasked to procure Covid-19 vaccines for the people, has just revealed this week that Thailand has been in contact with Gavi, one of the organizations running the scheme, for the possible procurements of Covid-19 vaccines under the scheme. This has suggested the joining of the country in the program.

The country’s status in this global scheme has long been murky since late last year when it first seriously started to procure Covid-19 vaccines for the people.

COVAX’s vaccines were first pursued as part of the country’s initial Covid-19 vaccine procurement plan with 20% of the overall target set for this year, but the government later shifted the focus on locally manufactured AstraZeneca, of which 61 million doses were targeted. These are almost all of the vaccines wanted for this year; first set at 63 million doses in total before the number was adjusted to 100 million doses to cover 50 million citizens.

The COVAX participation plan has since been put down with explanations given by concerned authorities that the country’s income did not meet the criteria, the processes under the scheme were complicated, and its vaccine prices were relatively higher than those procured elsewhere. (Read: Thailand has yet to commit to WHO’s COVAX Facility to get cheap or free Covid-19 vaccines as it is classified as a “middle-income” country: Anutin)

As checked by Bangkok Tribune, COVAX Facility’s lists of participation as available, dated December 15 last year and May 12 this year, show two major lists of participation. One is that of countries with “commitment agreements” or “self-financing participants” as they have signed these up to the Facility. The other is that of countries with “confirmations of intent to participate” as they have submitted just non-binding confirmations of intent to participate in the Facility.

Thailand is not on the commitment agreements list, nor it is listed under the AMC eligible economies, 92 in total. It appeared on the list of “confirmations of intent to participate”.

Dr. Nakorn speaks at the webinar along with other speakers.

The NVI’s Director, Dr. Nakorn Premsri himself had simply said at the press briefing that the country “is still in” COVAX, without further elaboration. During the launch today, he has elaborated more on that, giving the reason why the country has decided to commit to the scheme.

He said the situation has changed as several countries have already inoculated a mass number of their citizens. There would be more vaccines available for countries to get over the next year, and the vaccines produced globally, therefore, could be more available for participating countries in the scheme to get, or donated.

At present, the scheme, which is aimed to create a pooled procurement system to help ensure fair and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines among countries regardless of their wealth, is also struggling to get the vaccines, and that’s also the reason why Thailand was not in a line under the scheme for its vaccines this year, according to his explanations. At present, the Facility has managed to distribute around 136 million doses to 136 participating countries, or around one million doses per country, he said.

The NVI’s director stressed that Thailand is an upper-middle-income country so it would not be subject to vaccine donations made under the special program of COVAX, known as COVAX AMC, suggesting that the country would go through a normal channel of the scheme, which is self-financing for the vaccines with a pooled price.

Deputy PM and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who delivered a speech at the event, remained confident in immunizing the citizens as targeted this year, which are 50 million people. He thanked the organisations concerned for their new support on vaccine development of the country.

The new fund, set for Thailand around €1.9 million or Bt72 million would go to support the country’s technical and capacity building in prevention and control against the virus from this year on, according to Dr. Brown. This is part of the EU’s €20 million (Bt760 million) programme for “The EU Southeast Asia Health Pandemic Response and Preparedness Programme in Thailand” with eight other ASEAN member countries and the ASEAN Secretariat.

Under the new fund, a range of programs and activities on prevention and control as well as those for vulnerable groups would be in the focus such as surveillance and testing strategies, risk assessment, risk communication, and community engagement, and immunization programs.

HE Pirkka Tapiola, Ambassador of the European Union to the Kingdom of Thailand, said this is the significant partnership between the EU, Thailand and WHO that will contribute to strengthening the capacity of Thailand’s health system to control Covid 19.

“This is to make sure no one is left behind. We want to build back better and emerge stronger together,” said Ambassador Tapiola, stressing “no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

HE Tapiola said Team Europe, which comprises the EU, its Member States and financial institutions, has provided over €800 million to assist ASEAN and member states of ASEAN in their response to the virus. The collaboration from the EU, he said, such as that provided to support Asean’s Covid response by Germany last year will also help enhance ASEAN’s joint capacity in response to medical emergencies and future epidemic threats.

On a global front, Team Europe is also a lead contributor with over €3 billion for the COVAX Facility ensuring at least 1.8 billion doses for 92 low and lower middle-income countries across the world, ASEAN citizens included.

“To win the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, global cooperation and solidarity are crucial,” said HE Tapiola, while adding the EU is already at the forefront of this effort.