Taiwan suggests mainland China pressured BioNTech to abandon Covid-19 vaccine deal

Lawrence Chung
·3-min read

Political pressure from Beijing meant Taiwan failed at the last minute to secure an agreement for the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, the island’s health minister suggested on Wednesday.

Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said Taiwan could have clinched a deal last month with German pharmaceutical company BioNTech for 5 million doses of its vaccine were it not for the last-minute objection of a third party.

“Apparently some people did not want Taiwan to be happy,” he said in an interview with local radio station Hit FM.

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Chen said the self-ruled island’s health authorities had discussed the supply of the vaccine with BioNTech late last year, and that during the discussions, “I was worried about interference by external forces and political pressure” that could undermine an agreement.

“Internal disagreements [about the deal] and challenges about the global distribution of the vaccine” were the factors Chen said BioNTech cited in its response about the deal, which Chen said was “still pending”.

BioNTech, which developed its vaccine in cooperation with US company Pfizer globally, partnered with Chinese firm Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group – commonly known as Fosun Pharma – for development and distribution in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

On January 12, Chen revealed that Taiwan was about to sign a contract with an unnamed foreign supplier for 5 million doses.

BioNTech and Fosun did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office declined to comment.

Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory that must be returned by force if necessary. It has suspended official exchanges with the island since Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party was elected president in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle.

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On why Taiwan refused to buy Covid-19 vaccines developed by mainland China, Chen said that not only were those vaccines not on the list of the World Health Organization-backed Covax Facility, but there was also insufficient data proving their efficacy.

“Besides, China has never tried to discuss with us about the issue of vaccine supplies,” Chen said.

Former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou has criticised the Tsai government for refusing the Chinese vaccines, saying it would be better to secure more sources of vaccine supplies.

Taiwan did succeed last week in signing a deal with US firm Moderna to buy more than 5 million doses of its vaccine, which is claimed to have among the highest efficacy rates in trials of those approved so far. Moderna was expected to deliver its doses to Taiwan between May and June, according to Chen.

The island is also expected to receive 200,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from Britain, through Covax, between late February and the middle of March, health officials have said.

Chen said the need for Taiwan to inoculate its population was less pressing than in some countries, given Taiwan’s success in largely containing its coronavirus outbreak.

As of Wednesday, Taiwan had reported a total of 938 cases, including 77 locally transmitted infections, and only nine deaths. Only 50 active cases have been treated in hospital.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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