China may have blocked Taiwan's bid to buy Covid-19 vaccine, says Taipei minister

Dealing with a Chinese company to access the vaccine had been a source of anxiety for Taiwan's government.
Dealing with a Chinese company to access the vaccine had been a source of anxiety for Taiwan's government.PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI (BLOOMBERG) - Taiwan's attempts to purchase five million doses of BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine fell apart at the last minute, Taiwan's health minister said on Wednesday (Feb 17), voicing concern that political pressure from Beijing may have scuppered the deal.

Taiwan's government was making final preparations to sign a deal with Germany-based BioNTech in January but then "things changed", minister Chen Shih-chung said in an interview on radio station Hit FM.

Interference by "external forces" upset arrangements, Mr Chen said.

"There are some people that don't want Taiwan to be too happy."

BioNTech's regional distributor, China-based Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter. Shanghai Fosun secured rights in March to develop and market the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine across mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

Taiwan has been one of the standout successes in combating the spread of the coronavirus, registering nine deaths and fewer than 1,000 cases since the beginning of the pandemic. But securing vaccinations for its 23.5 million people has proved to be more challenging.

The deal's collapse is a significant setback for Taiwan's inoculation efforts, and the concerns of interference by Beijing are likely to further strain relations with China.

China's government claims Taiwan as its territory, despite having never ruled it. Under leader Xi Jinping, China is increasing its military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, while also threatening to invade.

Dealing with a Chinese company to access the vaccine had been a source of anxiety for Taiwan's government, Mr Chen said.

"At the time, we were worried there would be political pressure," he said.

Taiwan's government is still talking with BioNTech, according to Presidential Office spokesman Kolas Yotaka. Taiwan has not started offering vaccines to the public yet, but Mr Chen said efforts to procure them from overseas continue, with the first vaccinations likely to begin in the middle of the year.

The government plans to purchase 20 million doses, about five million of which will likely be provided by the Covax programme, co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the World Health Organisation.

Beijing has blocked Taiwan's participation as an observer in the WHO's World Health Assembly for the past several years, since President Tsai Ing-wen came into office.

Speaking during a commercial break on the radio broadcast, Mr Chen said of the failure to secure the German vaccines: "It's just like our (attempts to) participate in the WHA," according to a YouTube video of the interview.

"This should not surprise anyone, but we are prepared," spokesman Kolas said via text message on Wednesday. "Our policy has not changed - we are developing our own high-quality vaccine and at the same time, securing short-term access by purchasing from other companies."