Taiwan accuses China of slowing its access to Covid-19 vaccines. Reality is more complicated

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The island of 23 million people had recorded almost zero local infections for months and demand for the vaccine was so low that only 1% of the population was vaccinated.

But in this pandemic, things can change quickly. Today, Taiwan is grappling with its worst outbreak yet, reporting more than 1,000 new cases last week, and has a population that wants the vaccine – but can’t get it.

But in theory, there could be a solution for Taiwan right on its doorstep: Chinese vaccines.

China has sent tens of millions of doses of its nationally developed vaccines around the world. But tensions in the Taiwan Strait have been high since the pandemic, with Beijing blocking Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization, wooing Taipei’s shrinking allies. and increased military pressure on the autonomous island, which it considers part of its territory.
Taiwan has been a success for Covid.  Now he's fighting his biggest epidemic
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Amid growing hostility and mistrust, Taipei has categorically refused to accept Chinese-made vaccines from Beijing, citing Taiwanese law banning the import of Chinese vaccines for human use. It is a move that Beijing has called “sacrificing the well-being of the people for its own political interests.”

Taipei doesn’t see it that way and has accused Beijing of blocking its supply, rather than trying to boost it.

Presidential Office spokeswoman Kolas Yotaka said on Twitter on Wednesday: “Taiwan’s access to vaccines continues to be slowed down by Chinese interference, as they insist that we buy vaccines made in China. China. If you really want to help, don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block the room. “

Yotaka did not give details of the alleged Chinese interference. But in February, Island Health Minister Chen Shih-chung revealed in a radio interview that Taiwan and BioNTech were set to sign a contract for 5 million doses of the vaccine in December, until what the deal fails due to “political pressure”. While BioNTech has a greater China distribution deal with Shanghai-based company Fosun Pharma, Beijing denies obstructing the Taiwan deal.

But as the war of words over vaccines rages on, the reality is that Taiwan’s slow vaccine rollout goes far beyond geopolitical tensions with China.

Limited supplies

Taiwan has ordered 20 million doses of the vaccine – enough to fully immunize 43% of its population. But, so far, only about 700,000 doses have arrived, and all of them are manufactured by AstraZeneca.

According to the island’s official Central News Agency (CNA), Taiwan signed an agreement with AstraZeneca last year to purchase 10 million doses of its vaccine. In March, 117,000 doses were finally shipped from a South Korean factory, becoming the first vaccines to arrive on the island.

Taiwan accuses `` outside forces '' of blocking the BioNTech vaccine deal.  China says it has nothing to do with it
Taiwan has also ordered 4.76 million doses through COVAX – the WHO-backed global initiative to ensure equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines. The first batch of 199,200 doses arrived in early April, followed by a second shipment of 400,000 doses on Wednesday.
In February, Taiwan signed a 5 million dose contract with US vaccine maker Moderna. The island’s central epidemic control center said the shots were due to be delivered this month. Last week, the top Taipei official in Washington said the shipment was now due to arrive in June, CNA reported.

Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States, Hsiao Bi-khim, said demand for vaccines in Taiwan was initially low as she focused on helping diplomatic allies in Taipei obtain vaccines. But now she’s working to make sure Taiwan’s orders are delivered on time, according to CNA.

Little interest

The Taiwanese government rolled out its vaccination program at the end of March, offering the first vaccines to medical staff. The program was then expanded to include police, social workers, the elderly and the military.

In mid-April, he allowed people not on the government’s priority list to get vaccinated at a cost of 600 New Taiwan dollars. ($ 21) per shot.

But interest in the vaccine was low, as people had led largely normal lives for months, going to bars, restaurants, concerts and baseball games. There were also concerns about side effects, amid reports of blood clots in people who had received the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“In the past 1.5 years, Taiwan has not experienced a major epidemic, so many residents did not feel in immediate danger,” said Chen Hsiu-hsi, professor of epidemiology at the National Taiwan University. “This is why few people were encouraged to take Covid-19 vaccines.”

But the spike in cases this month has raised alarms, prompting some residents to rush to get vaccinated. Before the arrival of the last batch of COVAX on Wednesday, Taiwan had used up two-thirds of its 300,000-dose vaccine supply.

As supplies run out, the Taiwanese government has suspended program, reserving any remaining doses for frontline workers, according to CNA.

Chen Hsiu-hsi, the epidemiologist, said about 30% of medical workers in Taiwan have now been vaccinated. He hopes that number will reach 50% with the 400,000 newly arrived doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Develop your own vaccines

When it comes to developing its own Covid-19 vaccine, Taiwan has lagged behind the efforts of the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, China and Russia.

The island’s three coronavirus vaccine candidates went into clinical trials last August, five months after China and the United States began testing their first vaccine candidates in humans.
While some health experts have criticized the Taiwanese government for not supporting the island’s pharmaceutical companies enough to develop vaccines, it seems they are finally making progress.

President Tsai Ing-wen said on Tuesday that two Taiwanese vaccine candidates have reached the end of stage 2 clinical trials.

According to Tsai, the two vaccines developed by Taiwanese companies, Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corporation and United Biomedical, are expected to be available by the end of July, if they are granted emergency use authorization next month.

Chen, the epidemiologist, said he was optimistic about vaccines being developed in Taiwan. “They have reported good results in stage 2 clinical trials, and it appears that they respond well to different variants in the lab as well.”

Until then, Chen said, Taiwan will have to rely on foreign vaccines to cope with the crisis – but not those from its nearest neighbor with the largest supply.

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