After Taiwan managed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year, a surge in locally transmitted cases began in the middle of last month.
Most people seem to believe that the best solution is to quickly vaccinate everyone to achieve herd immunity as soon as possible.
The vaccine issue is an incendiary matter, and the advances made in developing a Taiwan-produced vaccine has caused much controversy.
At the end of the 20th century, the hepatitis B virus (HBV) was rampant in Taiwan. When I started teaching at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University in the early 1980s, when the school was called National Yang Ming College of Medicine, I helped a medical team composed of members from Yang Ming and Taipei Veterans General Hospital to clone and sequence the HBV genome, and begin work on a vaccine.
Due to our late start, the government decided to import HBV vaccines, because saving lives was more urgent than completing the research locally. The decision successfully prevented the virus from spreading and significantly reduced the occurrence of liver cancer in Taiwan.
Although our project was aborted midway, the medical team did not complain. After the team was dissolved, the members turned to researching the formation of cancers, and the results fostered the development of biomedical engineering in the nation.
There is nothing wrong with the government trying to develop and enhance the domestic vaccine industry, but the severe COVID-19 situation presents officials with a dilemma. Even though the results of the phase 2 clinical trials for the local vaccines have yet to be released, and there is no guarantee that they are safe and effective, the government has signed contracts to obtain at least 5 million doses each from two local manufacturers.
Meanwhile, the government’s purchase of foreign vaccines has been delayed by Chinese intervention. Local governments and civic groups anxious to tackle the problem on their own are criticizing the central government for blocking the direct importation of vaccines and for staking Taiwan’s fate on domestic vaccines.
This is causing the public to doubt the safety and efficacy of domestic vaccines before they are able to reach the market. A May 28 survey by Chinese-language Global Views Monthly found that more than 60 percent of the public are unwilling to take a locally made vaccine. This has cast a shadow over the future of domestic vaccines.
No one would deny the importance of domestic vaccines, and the development of locally made vaccines is necessary strategically from the perspective of medical logistics and national security.
As vaccine research and development in Taiwan nears success, professionalism must be the focus. Researchers must be allowed to concentrate on their work, give it their all and assess the results with the strictest academic objectivity.
Vaccine development and biomedical engineering in Taiwan remain extremely vulnerable, and they should not be hijacked for political or personal interests.
In the past, knowing the importance of the HBV vaccine, the government used a two-pronged approach — procuring foreign vaccines while developing a domestic one, until the urgency of the situation prompted it to prioritize foreign vaccines. This helped it to successfully defeat the HBV virus.
This experience is perhaps an example that Taiwan can learn from today.
Choo Kong-bung is an adjunct researcher at Taipei Veterans General Hospital’s Department of Medical Research.
Translated by Eddy Chang
Over the past year, scores of gargantuan Chinese sand dredgers have deployed themselves in territorial waters off the Taiwanese-administered Matsu Islands, where their activities erode beaches and ruin fishing shoals. These Chinese ships are mercenary; a small 5,000 ton ship could sell a load of sand for the equivalent of US$55,000 to Fujian construction firms — or to the People’s Liberation Army for use in building its artificial reefs in the South China Sea. They also frustrate Taiwan’s government, which tries unsuccessfully to cooperate with Beijing on environmental stewardship of their contiguous waters. Each day, Taiwanese Coast Guard vessels can
On Monday last week, a formation of 16 Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) warplanes flew over the South China Sea near Malaysian Borneo and intruded into the airspace of Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone. Although it was not the first incursion into Malaysian airspace by Chinese military aircraft, it was the first time such a large formation had been dispatched by China. It was yet another worrying indication that Beijing senses an opportunity to aggressively shape the post-COVID-19 world in its own image and has stepped up its plans to expand the frontiers of its empire well beyond the limits of its
With Taiwan’s COVID-19 “ring of steel” breached, the public is demanding vaccines, and politicians are calling for vaccine imports to be expedited. However, the manner in which the debate is being conducted leaves much to be desired. Some people believe that companies and nonprofit groups should be allowed to import vaccines. This is not as simple as it sounds. The mRNA vaccines made by Moderna and BioNTech need to be stored at extremely low temperatures during their transportation from overseas manufacturing plants to the clinics that administer them. Regarding the BioNTech vaccine, its export from the EU requires complex paperwork and procedures.
With more controversies upsetting the nation’s fight against COVID-19, government agencies need to regain the public’s confidence. Being more transparent would be a good start. Over the past week, several politicians have apologized for failing to prevent more COVID-19 deaths, including President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) and Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中). They must be frustrated to see their globally acclaimed victory from last year being denounced. However, their apologies must ring hollow to the grieving families and those who have no access to rapid testing kits or COVID-19 vaccines. To make matters worse, a Taipei-based clinic