BANGKOK: Thais who do not want to wait for the COVID-19 vaccine distribution from their government have opted for a new option to get it overseas.
The growing demand for vaccination amid a new wave of outbreaks in the country has given rise to tour packages which let customers join the vaccination queue abroad and choose from a greater variety of vaccines to build their immunity against the coronavirus.
“People who opt for this don’t want to wait in Thailand any longer. If they have a choice and can afford the vaccination, they choose to pay instead of waiting because they don’t know for how long they’d have to do that,” said Mr Rachphol Yamsaeng, managing director of Unithai Trip.
His company recently began to advertise organised trips from Thailand to the United States, offering overseas holidays with a twist.
Starting from about US$2,300 per person, the packaged tour includes a 10-day journey where customers not only get to travel around Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas but also receive the Johnson & Johnson single-dose COVID-19 vaccine.
“So many people have called – hundreds of them – but 80 per cent of them don’t have a US visa. This is despite me having said they need it to join as they won’t be able to travel otherwise,” Mr Rachphol told CNA.
Still, people keep calling. This actually shows they really want to go.
Unithai Trip is one of a few travel companies in Thailand that offer COVID-19 vaccination in their tour packages. According to Mr Rachphol, several customers were finalising their travel plans with his firm and a few others have already departed for the US since last week.
Most of his clients are families who paid for private tours. Prices range from US$2,300 per person for a group of eight travellers to US$3,700 per person for a group of two. These include hotel accommodation in the US, private transport, entry fees for tourist attractions and a service charge for liaising with the Thai embassy to obtain certificates of entry, which are required for their return to Thailand.
As for the vaccination, the appointment will be confirmed prior to the clients' departure from Thailand.
“We’ll take care of everything from start to finish,” said Mr Rachphol, who also flew to get a COVID-19 vaccine jab in the US earlier this week.
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COVID-19 VACCINE TOURISM
COVID-19 vaccine tourism recently took off in Thailand, where vaccination against the coronavirus is prioritised according to age and health conditions. Currently, tens of millions of local residents rely on the government for vaccine allocation as it is the sole importer of COVID-19 vaccines.
To create herd immunity, the government has set a target to inoculate at least 50 million people within this year or about 70 per cent of the population. Still, there are concerns among residents that the plan may not be rolled out within the set timeframe.
Since February, about 2.3 million people in Thailand have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. This means the government still needs to inoculate some 47.7 million residents within 226 days to reach its target. However, data from the health ministry showed the daily rates of vaccination are far below what is required.
Moreover, the country is battling its biggest wave of COVID-19 outbreak so far. On May 17, its COVID-19 centre reported 9,635 new patients in one day. More than 70 per cent of the new infections were detected in jails and prisons.
Since the new wave hit Thailand in early April, 84,692 people have been infected by the coronavirus and more than 500 have died. The recent spikes in cases and fear of possible mutations have pushed Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha to procure more COVID-19 vaccines.
The government has so far secured 63 million doses of the Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines. The latter – 61 million doses – will be produced in Thailand and is expected to be ready from June.
“I’d like to stress that the government can certainly procure vaccines for all the Thai population and will not stop the procurement or the reservation to ensure safety for all Thais. Given our old target of procuring 100 million doses for 50 million people within this year, I have made an order to increase it to at least 150 million doses. We are confident we’ll be able to procure them all,” Mr Prayut said in a Facebook post on May 11.
“I’d like to confirm every type of vaccine imported by the government is efficient and approved by the Ministry of Public Health and that they’ve been widely used across the world. Tens of millions of people have received them, including world leaders.”
According to Mr Prayut, the Public Health Ministry proposed more vaccine procurement plans, including 5 million to 20 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 5 million to 10 million doses from each of the Sputnik V, Sinovac and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
Four vaccines have been approved by the Thai Food and Drug Administration (FDA), namely AstraZeneca, Sinovac, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna. However, only the first two have been imported and used in the vaccination programme for the general public.
The Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) is the sole importer of COVID-19 vaccines in Thailand. According to its managing director Witoon Danwiboon, the organisation is in the process of procuring the Moderna vaccine for private hospitals. However, the vaccine will be administered with a cost once it becomes available in Thailand.
READ: Phuket seeks ‘special channel’ to procure its own COVID-19 vaccines for planned July reopening
COVID-19 VACCINE TOURS: A SOLUTION AWAY FROM HOME
Thailand’s vaccination programme is divided into three phases, with each recipient given two doses of the vaccine free of charge.
The first phase started in February, targeting risk groups and areas with high levels of infection. Recipients include medical personnel, health officials and volunteers, people aged 60 and over, and those with chronic diseases.
The second phase will start in June and include people aged 60 and over as well as those with chronic diseases nationwide. Registration began earlier this month at hospitals and on the health ministry's online platform.
The final phase is for people aged between 18 and 59. This group's registration has been brought forward to start on May 31.
According to the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), the government has adjusted the national vaccination plan to speed up the inoculation by allowing every province to ration its vaccines to include walk-ins from June.
"The preliminary approach will be 30:50:20, which can be adjusted as necessary by the provincial communicable disease committee. For example, if there are 1,000 doses, 30 per cent of them can be allocated to appointments made through mobile application Mor Prom, 50 per cent to those made at hospitals, and 20 per cent to walk-ins," CCSA said on May 14.
But for some residents who do not want to wait, the emergence of COVID-19 vaccine tours offers a solution away from home. The US is a popular destination among Thai vaccine-seekers as several states give them to non-residents.
Earlier this month, the New York City government announced it will administer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to tourists at iconic sites across the city and “make sure they have a built-in souvenir to bring home with them”.
Besides the US, some tour operators in Thailand also organise trips to Serbia, which uses the Sputnik V vaccine as well as shots from Sinopharm, Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca.
“For me, this is a signal telling us that people will get to travel to the US soon. If Thailand relaxes its quarantine requirement – for example, by reducing the quarantine period for those who have been vaccinated to four or seven days – more people would want to join the tours,” said Mr Chanok Kalyanamitra from tour company My Journey Travel.
His company also organises vaccine trips to the US, where travellers will be inoculated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. A number of people have shown interest, he added, but many of them were put off by the 14-day quarantine requirement upon their return to Thailand.
“Nevertheless, optimistically speaking, it seems like oversea tours are beginning to move,” Chanok said. “Tour operators are coming back to work.”