Taiwan needs vaccines. Beijing has offered them. The problem? Politics as usual

May 25, 2021, 11:10 AM UTC

Taiwan’s COVID response had been exemplar. For almost all 18 months of the pandemic, the island remained relatively free of COVID-19, thanks to intensive contact tracing, near universal mask wearing, and a centralized epidemic command center. But now cracks in that response—loose quarantine rules for airline personnel are partly to blame—have set off the island’s first real COVID wave and revealed another shortcoming: Taiwan’s slow administration of COVID-19 vaccines.

On Monday, Taiwan reported a record 590 local COVID-19 infections, its tenth consecutive day of reporting at least 100 cases. Previously, its one-day record for infections was 24.

As of Tuesday, Taiwan has administered 302,698 COVID vaccines at a rate of 15,000 shots per day for its 24 million people, which translates to enough jabs for just 0.6% of its population.

Taiwan has received an offer of assistance—but not one it’s likely to accept.

On Monday evening, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, an arm of the mainland Chinese government, said that it is willing to provide Taiwan with vaccines as a means to help solve its current COVID-19 crisis.

“Most Taiwanese compatriots are eagerly anticipating the use of mainland vaccines,” Zhu Fenglian, a spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, told reporters on Monday. “Our attitude is very clear, we are willing to make arrangements quickly so that the majority of Taiwan compatriots will have mainland vaccines available as soon as possible.”

Taiwan is likely to reject the offer since its government has reaffirmed in recent months its decades-long ban on importing pharmaceutical products made in mainland China. Taiwan’s health minister Chen Shih-Chung told reporters earlier this year that Chinese vaccines are “not an option” for Taiwan due to the ban and the fact that the vaccines did not appear to be effective.

In fact, rather than seeing Beijing as a helpful hand in its growing COVID crisis, Taipei claims Beijing has hampered its ability to procure and distribute jabs, making COVID vaccines the latest political flashpoint between the two sides that both claim the self-governing island as its own.

Taiwan’s vaccine shortage

On paper, Taiwan has procured enough vaccine doses to inoculate a majority of its residents, but in practice only fraction of those doses are available to Taiwanese residents.

Taiwan says it has secured 10 million vaccine doses from British vaccine maker AstraZeneca, 5 million from U.S. firm Moderna, and another 5 million unspecified doses through the global COVAX initiative.

But Taiwanese authorities claim that the country’s current stocks are low due to a global COVID-19 vaccine shortage. After beginning its COVID-19 vaccine campaign in March, Taiwan reports that it has received shipments of a combined 700,000 vaccine doses from COVAX and AstraZeneca, with 400,000 of those doses arriving only last Wednesday.

Taiwan’s health commission, meanwhile, said on Tuesday that it expects to receive 2 million vaccine doses by June with an additional 8 million doses arriving by August. Chen did not specify which vaccine would be in those shipments but said the August supply will likely include a yet-to-be-approved domestically-produced jab.

Amid the current shortage, Taiwanese Health Minister Chen said Friday that he had appealed to his U.S. counterpart, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, for access to the U.S.’s excess vaccine supplies. “We have an urgent need for vaccines, and hope [Becerra] can support Taiwan when it comes to the vaccines the United States [is] going to release,” Chen told reporters.

Meanwhile, some in Taiwan have called for Taiwan secure more doses through negotiations with Beijing.

“At this moment, lives are at stake, and we respectfully tell the Tsai government: the real enemy is the virus, not the mainland,” Hung Hsiu-chu, former head of Taiwan’s Kuomintang political party, said recently.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen is a member of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, which has a more openly antagonistic relationship with Beijing, while the Kuomintang opposition party advocates for closer ties with the mainland.

Tsai has not responded to her critics directly, but has promoted the potential use of two domestically-produced vaccines starting in July and says her government is engaged in efforts to procure more vaccines from other countries.

“We are working to acquire vaccine doses from abroad, and our government is doing all we can to ensure their timely delivery,” she said on Twitter on May 18.

Steve Tsang, the director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, says that Tsai will almost certainly reject Beijing’s offer given the potential political ramifications.

“If Tsai accepts the vaccine, it shows the superiority of the [Chinese Communist Party] system and makes it easier to persuade the Taiwanese that accepting unification is good for all,” he says. 

Fosun Pharma

In mainland China, Beijing’s outstanding offer to provide Taiwan with vaccines was the No. 1 trending topic on top search engine Baidu on Tuesday, and many Chinese social media users questioned why Taiwan would reject China’s generosity.

But Taiwan’s government is insisting that Beijing has thwarted Taiwan’s efforts to procure vaccines rather than helped.

“Taiwan access to vaccines continues to be slowed down by Chinese interference, while they insist we buy Chinese made ones,” Kolas Yotaka, a spokesperson for Taiwan’s Presidential Office, said on Twitter on May 19.    “If you really want to help please don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall.”

Yotaka did not explain how China has interfered with Taiwan’s access to vaccine supplies, but in February health minister Chen suggested that authorities in Beijing had blocked a proposed deal for 5 million vaccine doses between Taiwan and German COVID-19 vaccine maker BioNTech.

China’s Fosun Pharma, a mainland pharmaceutical company, controls distribution rights to the BioNTech-Pfizer mRNA vaccine in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. But Chen claimed that Taiwan negotiated directly with BioNTech for the doses and suggested that either Fosun or authorities in Beijing scuttled the agreement for political purposes. “Certain people don’t want Taiwan to be too happy,” he said at the time. Beijing denied that it interfered with Taiwan’s access vaccine doses.

On Saturday, Fosun Pharma chairman Wu Yifang told Chinese media outlet Xinhua that Fosun is willing to provide Taiwan with doses from BioNTech. Wu explained that Fosun has been promoting the BioNTech doses in Taiwan since last year.

Taiwan bans the import of Chinese-made pharmaceutical products, but it is unclear if Fosun could circumvent the ban through shipping German-made vaccine doses to Taiwan.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to Fortune‘s request for comment on if it would accept German-made doses distributed by China’s Fosun Pharma.

At the very least, Taiwan’s new outbreak has kickstarted Taiwan’s fledgling vaccine campaign. Before the outbreak, Taiwanese authorities had struggled to stimulate demand for even Taiwan’s limited vaccine supplies, and was on the brink of having to throw out wasted AstraZeneca doses that are set to expire on May 31.

The new outbreak appears to have convinced the public that vaccines are an urgent need. The government reports that there has been an unprecedented run on vaccine appointment sign ups since the beginning of the wave.

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