Taiwan offered another 5 million Covid-19 vaccine doses by Buddhist group

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A major Buddhist group in Taiwan is set to follow two tech firms by donating Covid-19 vaccines to the island’s government, which is struggling to secure enough shots amid an ongoing outbreak.

The move by the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation came as Taiwan extended its soft lockdown for two more weeks to July 12 after it recorded 104 new infections and 24 deaths on Wednesday.

It also came after Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Foxconn, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), the world’s largest contract chip maker, announced plans to buy 5 million doses each from German vaccine maker BioNTech.

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The foundation, too, plans to buy 5 million doses from BioNTech for donation, its chief executive officer Yen Bo-wen said on Wednesday.

“Through the joint efforts of foundation members at home and abroad, experts, scholars as well as various channels, we have obtained initial progress in securing the vaccine source for the purchase of 5 million doses of BioNTech vaccine and have prepared the necessary documents for submission to the government for the import of the vaccine,” Yen said.

He said that the foundation had been working to buy the shots since Taiwan’s recent outbreak worsened last month, in addition to donating medical supplies to Taiwanese authorities.

Yen stopped short of revealing how the foundation would be able to buy vaccines from BioNTech, whose distribution rights in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are owned by the mainland Chinese company Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group.

Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Centre had tried to buy vaccines directly from BioNTech, but the deal fell through, with the island’s government accusing the mainland Chinese government of pressuring the German firm over the proposed deal. Beijing rejected the accusation, saying the island was free to buy the shots through Fosun.

Taiwanese Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, who heads the command centre, has said that the island was unable to import vaccines from the mainland because local law bans mainland pharmaceutical products.

Gou and TSMC have said they would be able to import BioNTech vaccines from the German firm directly, without revealing how they were getting around the Fosun issue.

Another religious group, the Buddha Light International Association, previously proposed to donate 500,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine and said it was asking the Taiwanese government to negotiate with the US firm directly.

On Tuesday, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said on Twitter that his country’s government would donate 20,000 doses to Taiwan.

“I am proud that we can, albeit in a small way, show solidarity with the Taiwanese people in combating Covid-19. Freedom-loving people should look out for each other!” he tweeted.

He did not say which brand of vaccine would be sent to the island, nor when. Reuters reported that the donation was in response to a request from Taiwan and that the shots would be delivered by the end of September.

The Lithuanian government later tweeted that it would also donate a total of 126,000 doses to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, saying that “nobody can win against Covid-19 alone”.

Taiwan has signed deals to buy 10 million doses from AstraZeneca, 5 million from Moderna and 4.7 million via the Covax Facility, which is supported by the World Health Organization.

But it has so far received a little more than a million doses. Although Japan and the US recently donated 1.24 million doses from AstraZeneca and 2.5 million shots from Moderna respectively, Taiwan remains far short of the amount needed to vaccinate its 23.5 million population. To date, 7 per cent of the self-ruled island’s people have been inoculated.

Chen said on Wednesday there was no plan to lift the soft lockdown, after reports of new infection clusters, including at Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Corporation and a care centre for the elderly.

“Overall, although there is improvement in the latest trend of the outbreak, it still falls short of reaching the criteria for lifting our level 3 alert, which we will extend to July 12,” he said.

Taiwan first raised its alert to tier 3 of its four-level system for two weeks from May 19, suspending operations of most public outlets and schools as well as activities that drew crowds. The two-week restriction has since been extended three times.

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