Coronavirus Asia-Pacific

Worries mount about vaccine delay as Taiwan fights unusual outbreak

As the Taiwan government gears up to fight a small and unusual outbreak of locally transmitted Covid-19 cases, some in the medical community have expressed concerns about Taiwan not receiving vaccines it purchased as expected. Some have also suggested that the island should not snub China-made vaccines amid the global jostling for vaccines.

After an enviable streak of zero domestic cases since April last year, Taiwan's steely defence against the global pandemic cracked with a cluster of Covid-19 infections linked to a hospital in Taoyuan, a city that adjoins Taipei.

A woman in her 80s, who was part of the cluster, died late on Friday, making her the first coronavirus casualty in Taiwan since May.

The cluster was traced to an isolated Covid-19 patient at the Taoyuan General Hospital who had spread the disease to a doctor, whose test turned out to be positive on Jan 12 - the first time a doctor has been infected in Taiwan since the outbreak began last year.

The cluster has expanded to 19 cases as of Saturday, including other medical workers and their families, and gone beyond the confines of the hospital into nearby local communities.

While several Taiwanese vaccine manufacturers are in the midst of their vaccines' phase two trials, the local health authorities put in orders for some 15 million doses of vaccines from overseas firms in November, through Covax, the global pooled procurement mechanism for Covid-19 vaccines.

But it remains unclear when Taiwan will receive vaccines it ordered months ago.

Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said on Friday: "Some bigger countries are overbuying to stock up, buying four times the number of their population even... We did anticipate this would happen, but not to this degree."

An outspoken clinical psychiatrist, Dr Su Wei-shuo, who has clashed with the health authorities in the past over various issues including the controversial policy to import pork containing the animal feed additive ractopamine, said on Saturday that Taiwan should not turn its nose up at vaccines produced by China. "Taiwan is facing difficulties in getting vaccines from Western countries, a possible hurdle may be regional agency issues. What we can do now is to get the permission to import vaccines from China," said Dr Su.

The health minister has said many times that Taiwan will not be importing made-in-China vaccines, due to Taiwan's policy that bans imports of vaccines and biological products produced by China. As calls echoing Dr Su's proposal grew, Mr Chen said on Friday: "It isn't that we cannot consider vaccines from China, but so far, we know that the three China-made vaccines are not as effective (as we would like)."

He was referring to the vaccines produced by the companies Sinovac Biotech, Sinopharm and CanSino.

Front-line medical workers are scheduled to begin receiving inoculation next month, but none of the vaccines Taiwan purchased has arrived.

Mr Chen, however, warned that obtaining the vaccine was not the ultimate solution. "(People) in the US and Israel are getting their vaccines, but the pandemic is still ongoing. If we put all our hopes into the vaccines and neglect the basic epidemic prevention, this may result in a bigger outbreak," he said.

The message was that people should continue to be vigilant about wearing masks in public spaces, disinfecting or washing hands, and keeping social distancing and not relax just because vaccines have become available.

To prevent the Taoyuan cluster from growing, the Central Epidemic Command Centre announced on Jan 24 that as many as 5,000 people will be quarantined as they may have come into contact with the hospital's new cases.

As the Chinese New Year approaches, public celebrations have been called off or postponed across Taiwan. Taiwanese returning home to Taoyuan may need to self-quarantine, Mayor Cheng Wen-tsan said on Tuesday.

While President Tsai Ing-wen has called for Taiwanese to be supportive of those fighting the infection and working in the Taoyuan hospital, and many have sent food and supplies to them, opposition party Kuomintang has criticised the decision not to conduct mass screening.

Several lawmakers and physicians have also taken to social media to criticise the government, saying it should have sealed off the hospital, and invested more money to purchase vaccines for front-line medical workers.

Mr Chen admitted "there was a small crack in our (virus-fighting) firewall" but defended the steps taken to counter the outbreak.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2021, with the headline 'Worries mount about vaccine delay as Taiwan fights unusual outbreak'. Subscribe