Coronavirus: Taiwan ramps up local production to ensure sufficient medical supplies

A worker packs surgical masks in a factory in Taoyuan, on April 6, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI - Taiwan has taken another step to secure medical resources in its fight against the coronavirus outbreak - by manufacturing locally a drug that has been used to treat Covid-19 patients.

On Thursday (April 9), President Tsai Ing-wen announced the launch of a "drug production national team" that would be manufacturing quinine, the anti-malaria drug said to have helped to improve symptoms among patients, so there will be a surplus in its anti-virus efforts.

Taiwan "is launching a quinine surplus plan to safeguard our people's health", she said, explaining that it will be producing 15 million quinine pills in the next two to three months to be used to help patients who are in the early stages of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

SCI Pharmtech, Taiwan's main manufacturer of quinine's active pharmaceutical ingredients (API), will be spearheading the national team's efforts by donating one tonne of quinine API to the Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) and producing at least three tonnes of API for the Ministry of Health and Welfare to ensure Taiwan has enough resources to make quinine, said Ms Tsai.

This is the third national team formed to keep medical supplies in stock during the outbreak. The first one was put together by the government hurriedly in late January to begin producing medical masks round the clock, as panic-stricken Taiwanese residents cleaned out pharmacies and retailers of masks.

While Taiwan regularly produced masks prior to the outbreak, the majority of masks was exported to nearby countries, leaving Taiwan to instead import masks from China at a lower cost. After three months of working with dozens of mask factories around the island and installing 90 new production lines, Taiwan's domestic mask production rate has grown from 1.88 million per day to 15 million as of Thursday.

The second national team was commissioned by the government to make hazmat suits and other protective gear. In 2019 alone, Taiwan imported 2.1 million hazmat suits, with some 70-80 per cent from China and the remaining 20 per cent from South Korea and the United States.

But relying on imports was no longer an option, as nearby countries also scrambled to keep medical staff clad in sufficient protective gear.

In mid-March, Taiwan's Ministry of Economic Affairs and Ms Tsai announced that Taiwan would be making all of its own hazmat suits - nicknamed "bunny suits" locally - with eight production companies completing 100,000 protective suits and one million hazmat suits for medical staff working with Covid-19 patients on the front lines by end-March.

Raw material supplier Web-Pro Corp and major protective suit manufacturer Makalot Industrial have ramped up production to meet the front-line demands.

Ms Tsai has said that Taiwan is working to secure a stable supply of these "wartime commodities", a statement echoed by Foreign Minister Joseph Wu on March 18 when he announced a deal Taiwan signed with the US to pool protective gear supplies.

In a bid to keep protective gear production going, Taiwan's virus containment fight has a new diplomatic approach, promising to provide 100,000 masks for the US every week in exchange for enough raw material to make 300,000 hazmat suits.

"The collaboration system between Taiwan and the US also includes developing quick screening methods, vaccines and medication," said CECC director Chen Shih-chung on March 19, adding that because of the collaboration agreement, Taiwan would be on top of the list should the US develop vaccines and such.

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