By Panu Wongcha-um
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's plan to produce the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine locally is on track to be ready to begin mass inoculations in June, with a capacity to make up to 18 million doses per month, a senior official said on Friday.
It was still unclear how many would go to Thai citizens and how many would be exported to other Southeast Asian countries under a deal with AstraZeneca that has come under fire from opposition critics for being too slow and lacking transparency.
Thailand’s vaccine strategy revolves around production of AstraZeneca shots by local firm Siam Bioscience, owned by the Thai king’s vast business holdings.
Tests of the first batches are due to be completed by the end of May, the head of the National Vaccine Institute, Nakorn Premsri, told Reuters in an interview.
"The industrial batch will come out by June," Nakorn said.
Siam Bioscience underwent a five-day virtual audit in December and all the batches it produces will also undergo quality testing, AstraZeneca said in a statement.
Nakorn said Thailand chose to produce locally because it wanted to safeguard its own vaccine supply amid the global rush to protect against a virus that has killed more than two million people worldwide.
Thailand signed the AstraZeneca deal in October, putting it months behind nations such as the United Kingdom, the United States and India.
Thailand has ordered 61 million locally made doses from AstraZeneca – enough for 30.5 million people, or just over half the adult population, excluding people under 18 and pregnant women.
Until June, Thailand will rely on imported vaccines.
The first 50,000 imported doses from AstraZeneca are expected in February with 100,000 more due in the next few months, but on Friday Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul warned that supply issues in Europe might cause delays.
Thailand has also ordered two million doses of China's Sinovac Biotech Ltd vaccines with 200,000 doses due in February, though it has yet to be approved by the regulator.
For most of last year Thailand was able to keep infections low, but a second wave broke out in December, bringing total cases to 17,023 and 76 deaths.
(Reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng and Panarat Thepgumpanat, Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Ed Davies)