BANGKOK - Thailand is considering a cap on the export of locally made COVID-19 vaccines as it scrambles to shore up domestic supplies amid its worst outbreak of the coronavirus since the pandemic began.
Talk of restricting exports comes as some of Thailand's neighbors are also battling major new waves of infection.
Thailand and AstraZeneca struck a production deal last year for the British-Swedish pharmaceuticals giant to make its COVID-19 vaccine in Thailand. With the help of a local drugmaker, Siam Bioscience, AstraZeneca is set to make about 200 million doses between mid-2021 and mid-2022. The Thai government has reserved about a third of those doses, with the rest bound for export to Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and other neighbors.
A cap on vaccine exports could force those countries to delay or rethink their plans to get shots in arms.
But with less than 6% of its nearly 70 million people fully inoculated and the highly contagious delta variant of the virus now driving daily infection rates to record highs, Thailand is eager to add more AstraZeneca shots to its vaccine lineup.
That could mean restricting exports of AstraZeneca doses made in Thailand, said Trisulee Trisaranakul, a deputy spokeswoman for the Thai government.
The goal is "for Thai people [to] have ... enough vaccine," she told VOA. "We have a plan like that, but the thing can change [at any] time," she added.
Trisulee said the government may raise the share of AstraZeneca vaccine made in Thailand that must stay in Thailand rather than insisting on an exact number of doses, though officials have not yet decided. Either way, she said, the result could be fewer doses for AstraZeneca to export than the company had planned.
Polapee Suwanchawee, deputy secretary-general to Thailand's Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul, said the discussions have alarmed the countries scheduled to receive those exports, but he insisted they would somehow get the doses they were owed.
"There are emergency laws that [have] been conducted in Thailand and, yes, we might be able to have restrictions on it [exports], but we haven't actually ... been discussing it in more detail," he said.
Multiple news outlets have reported that the head of the Public Health Ministry's National Vaccine Institute, Nakorn Premsri, was drafting the regulation to restrict exports. VOA could not reach Nakorn for comment.
A confidential June 25 letter from AstraZeneca to Anutin - leaked to and reported by local media, and which Trisulee confirmed to VOA as authentic - lays out the company's export obligations. They include 16.5 million does for the Philippines, 30 million for Vietnam and 50 million for Indonesia, now the epicenter of the pandemic in Asia with tens of thousands of confirmed new cases a day.
If a large share of the shots don't arrive on time, that "would of course significantly delay achieving of high population coverage in the countries that were supposed to receive the Thai-made vaccines," said Jeremy Lim, a health policy expert at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
"It will force receiving countries to re-plan allocation within country and perhaps even focus on sufficient coverage for specific parts of the affected countries," he added.
"It's impossible to say that it would have no effect," said Matthew Griffith, an epidemiologist who has been consulting on the pandemic response in Southeast Asia for the World Health Organization.
He said earlier moves by India to restrict vaccine exports and by some developed countries to curb their contributions to the COVAX facility, an international scheme for equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, hurt many countries.
Griffith said the motives for such vaccine nationalism were understandable, with citizens insisting their governments meet their needs first. But he warned that adding hurdles to getting vaccines to where they're needed most raises the odds of developing variants even more dangerous than those circulating now and drawing out the pandemic for everyone.
"If we have entire countries, especially really populated countries like Indonesia, that are under-vaccinated, those places are going to be breeding grounds for variants, especially variants of concern," he said. "And if those variants of concern have mutations that allow it to evade the body's immune system, whether that's immunity derived from natural infection or from the vaccine, then we have a big problem, and it doesn't matter who's vaccinated or who's not vaccinated."
On the plus side, Griffith said the United States and some other wealthy countries were ramping up their contributions to COVAX and that some of the Southeast Asian countries awaiting AstraZeneca doses from Thailand look to be striking new deals with other vaccine makers in case export restrictions are approved.
Thailand announced plans last week to join COVAX to receive vaccines, while some other Southeast Asian countries did so earlier.
"If Thailand decides to restrict, countries are going to have a bit of a shock, but it seems that they're already preparing for that and looking for ways around it," he said.
AstraZeneca's Thailand office refused VOA's request for an interview and did not reply to questions about a possible cap on exports.
In a July 24 "open letter to the people of Thailand," the managing director of AstraZeneca's country office, James Teague, said the company was "leaving no stone unturned" in its efforts to accelerate local production and would be scouring its global supply chains in hopes of finding additional doses for the region.
Whatever happens, Lim said the prospect of another country curbing vaccine exports to meet its own demands underlines the need for a broader manufacturing base for vaccines and other critical medical supplies spread across more countries.
He noted Singapore's vaccine production plans. Germany's BioNTech, which together with U.S. drugmaker Pfizer developed another of the leading vaccines against COVID-19, recently chose the city-state of 5.7 million people for its first factory in Southeast Asia.
"Somewhat ironically, small countries might be ideal as they will address their national needs very quickly," Lim said.