Germany’s BioNTech said Wednesday it would provide its COVID-19 vaccine to Taiwan after the island’s health minister implied a deal to buy 5 million doses had been scuttled for political reasons.
Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung said earlier Wednesday that Taiwan officials had been prepared to announce the deal in December when BioNTech suddenly pulled out.
Chen, speaking in a radio interview, did not directly mention Chinese involvement, but implied that external political pressure could have hampered the deal, saying “certain people don’t want Taiwan to be too happy.”
Taiwan paid for the doses at the end of November, Chen said, but the deal fell through due to the involvement of the Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Company, which develops COVID-19 vaccines using BioNTech technology in China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.
It is unknown whether Shanghai Fosun pulled out of the deal due to political pressure or because of its own business interests, but Chen’s implication infuriated the Taiwanese public.
China has blocked Taiwan from participating in the World Health Organization and receiving its unrestricted health data as it fights COVID-19. Still, the possibility China could attempt to block Taiwan’s access to COVID-19 vaccines was seen as a clear step over the line.
BioNTech said Wednesday it would provide the vaccine to Taiwan, but did not elaborate on Chen’s recollection of the deal.
“BioNTech is committed to help bring an end to the pandemic for people across the world and we intend to supply Taiwan with our vaccine as part of this global commitment,” the company told reporters in an emailed statement. “Discussions are ongoing and BioNTech will provide an update.”
Taiwan said in December it had agreed to buy 10 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine from the United Kingdom’s AstraZeneca, 4.76 million doses from the COVAX global vaccine program, and around 5 million doses from an unnamed company.
Last week, Taiwan said it would buy over 5 million doses of vaccine from the United States’ Moderna.
Chen said Wednesday Taiwan would not have direct contact with Shanghai Fosun and would not sign a contract with the Chinese company. According to Chen, Taiwan has already signed a deal directly with BioNTech and is awaiting approval from Berlin.
The opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party had accused Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), which Chen also chairs, of failing to obtain vaccines from BioNTech as its distributor in Asia, Shanghai Fosun, is based in China.
Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has refused to buy Chinese vaccines, including those offered through COVAX, and may have faced difficulties in acquiring vaccines due to Chinese pressure.
Some groups, including the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research, have proposed a “chips for vaccines” scheme in which Taiwan would obtain vaccines in return for automotive chips. Chen said BioNTech’s commitment to supply Taiwan with COVID-19 vaccines was unrelated to any such deal.
China previously launched a state program to give Taiwanese in China priority for free-of-charge COVID-19 vaccines, raising concerns within Taiwan’s government.