Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 27 May 2021


Taiwan accuses China of interfering with Covid vaccine deals

President says agreement with German firm BioNTech has been delayed after Beijing intervention

President Tsai Ing-wen makes a speech after the outbreak of Covid-19 in Taipei, Taiwan.
President Tsai Ing-wen makes a speech in Taipei, Taiwan. Photograph: Sopa/Rex/Shutterstock

First published on Thu 27 May 2021 07.39 BST

Taiwan’s president has accused China of interfering in its vaccine acquisition programme, as the island continues to battle hundreds of daily new cases of Covid-19 with low supplies of vaccines.

Taiwan has received about 700,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine so far, for a population of 24 million. While the island had been largely Covid-free since the pandemic began, an outbreak in late April has so far infected more than 5,000 people, and killed at least 47. Less than 2% of the population are vaccinated.

The president, Tsai Ing-wen, said Taiwan had made successful deals with AstraZeneca from the UK and Moderna from the US, and was engaging with Germany’s BioNTech for the Pfizer vaccine.

“We had almost completed the contract signing with the German manufacturer at one point, but it has been delayed till now because China has interfered,” Tsai told a party meeting on Wednesday, in the most explicit comments to date, after months of suggestions that Beijing had been getting in the way of Taiwan’s procurement process.

Pfizer/BioNTech reportedly has an exclusive deal with the Shanghai-based pharmaceuticals company Fosun to distribute the vaccine to the Greater China region, including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Fosun has offered to supply Taiwan with vaccine doses, but Taiwan has said it is not possible.

In her Facebook post, Tsai laid out three principles for Taiwan’s vaccine procurement, one of which was that it would only deal with the direct manufacturers to ensure quality control.

In August, the health and welfare minister, Chen Shih-shung, said Taiwan had a longstanding policy against buying Chinese-made vaccines and other biological products. Taiwanese law allows the government to exempt some Chinese products from import bans, as long as they do not endanger national security or negatively impact related domestic industries.

On Thursday Chen gave some details of the deal’s collapse. He said Taiwan returned a signed contract to BioNTech in January, followed by a draft press release which BioNTech approved but then hours later asked to remove a reference where Taiwan called itself a country. One week later BioNTech said there were supply chain issues and needed time to make amendments.

BioNTech has been contacted for comment.

Beijing denies obstructing Taiwan’s deal with BioNtech and has accused Taiwan’s leaders of sacrificing the health of residents for politics. Taiwan’s opposition Kuomintang party has accused Tsai of bungling the vaccine rollout.

“Taiwan access to vaccines continues to be slowed down by Chinese interference, while they insist we buy Chinese-made ones,” said Taiwan’s presidential spokesperson, Kolas Yotaka. “If you really want to help, please don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall.”

The need for vaccines in Taiwan, an island democracy claimed by Beijing as part of its territory, has become more urgent with its recent outbreak. The second batch of AstraZeneca vaccines – totalling 410,000 doses – were cleared for distribution on Thursday.

On Facebook, Tsai said Taiwan had purchased 30m doses – enough to fully vaccinate about 60% of the population – with 10m expected to be delivered by August. According to reports, this number includes domestically produced vaccines currently in trial stage.

“We will do everything to safeguard a speedy delivery and offer more vaccines for anyone who wants a jab. The process for domestic-made vaccines is up and running and will provide us sufficient doses,” she said.

“For all the Taiwanese, and all the mayors and county [leaders], I realise everyone is concerned about the progress of the vaccine, especially when the situation seems intimidating. So I am asking everybody to support CECC [Central Epidemic Command Center] on vaccine acquisition.”

Taiwan has also been in talks with the US, seeking guarantees for some of the 20m doses Joe Biden has said will be sent overseas by July. But in farewell remarks on Wednesday, the US’s representative in Taiwan, Brent Christensen, suggested Taiwan’s impressive Covid management and relatively low case numbers meant it would not be prioritised over other harder-hit places.

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