Japan enters Taiwan-China fight with shipment of 1.24m Covid-19 vaccine doses to Taipei

The vaccine shortage amid rising case numbers in Taiwan has raised fears of a health crisis.
The vaccine shortage amid rising case numbers in Taiwan has raised fears of a health crisis.PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Japan announced on Friday (June 4) it was sending some of its Covid-19 vaccines to Taiwan, which has been struggling to procure its own supplies and blamed China for impeding shipments of the shots.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters Japan plans to provide about 1.24 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine free of charge.

The vaccines landed at Taipei’s main international airport early on Friday afternoon.

Taiwan Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said he was "extremely thankful" the shots had arrived at a tense moment in the island’s fight against the pandemic, as he reported another 472 new infections.

"I believe it will be very helpful in overall pandemic prevention," he added.

Mr Motegi reiterated that Taiwan has an urgent need for supplies of the vaccine as Covid-19 spreads and domestic production is not set to be ramped up until July.

"At the time of the great east Japan earthquake 10 years ago, people in Taiwan sent us a lot of donations quickly. I believe that is etched vividly in the minds of Japanese people.

"We decided to provide this based on our important partnership with Taiwan and our friendship," he said.

The shortage amid rising case numbers in Taiwan has raised fears of a health crisis that could hurt its semiconductor production, which is crucial for global industry.

Donating the vaccines to Taiwan could irritate China, Japan’s biggest trading partner, which sees the island as part of its territory and has stepped up military exercises in the region in recent months.

Mr Motegi said many in Japan remembered that Taiwan was the first to offer support after it was hit by a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Japan approved the vaccine on May 20 following domestic testing, but put its use on hold because of concern about rare cases of blood clots. The government has sufficient supplies of other shots to cover its own population and on Wednesday hosted a summit on accelerating global vaccination efforts.

"The relationship between Taiwan and Japan has always been extremely close, and our friendship is firm and deep," Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"Whenever disasters or accidents occur, both sides immediately lend a helping hand to each other and send help in the hour of need."

Asked about Japan's plans on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the idea "has drawn doubts from media and the public including in Taiwan".

He added that "vaccine assistance should be restored to its original purpose, which is to save lives, and should not be reduced to a tool for selfish political gains".

Mr Wang told reporters in Beijing that despite China’s goodwill offer of shots, Taiwan had "lied that the mainland obstructed the provision of vaccines" to the island.

Taiwan's government has resisted pressure, both from at home and from China, to work with Beijing to obtain Covid-19 vaccines, a politically unpalatable option for officials in Taipei.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and her party have blamed China for scuttling an earlier order of millions of Pfizer-BioNTech shots, although Beijing has rejected the accusation.

In a live online broadcast from her office, Ms Tsai called on people to understand that it was not only Taiwan facing challenges getting vaccines now, with global supplies tight.

"Taiwan's international situation is very difficult. Even before vaccines are loaded onto the aircraft, there may be variables."

Mr Terry Gou, the founder of iPhone assembler Hon Hai Precision Industry, better known as Foxconn, is working with Taiwan's Health Ministry to negotiate the purchase of BioNTech vaccines, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said in a video press conference with the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan on Thursday.

Dr Wu added that the administration of Ms Tsai welcomes any individuals or organisations that want to work with the government to secure vaccines for Taiwan.

Johnson & Johnson said that it had been in "confidential discussions" with Taiwan about providing its vaccine to the island since last year, but gave no details.

The J&J vaccine requires a single dose, rather than the two-shot regimen of most other Covid-19 vaccines.

Taiwan has so far been unable to directly obtain Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines from Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group.

The China-based drugmaker, which has an agreement to develop and distribute them in the greater China region that includes Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, has repeatedly said it wants to supply the BioNTech vaccine to Taiwan.