Just a few days after an outbreak of locally transmitted COVID-19 cases, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in May announced that a domestically produced vaccine against the virus would become available late this month. At the time, even though the government had placed orders for the Moderna and AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines, just 700,000 of the doses had arrived, and many Taiwanese were reluctant to get inoculated, in no small part due to the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) disinformation campaign about the AstraZeneca vaccine’s alleged shortcomings.
Before the outbreak, the government had been successful in keeping the number of infections to a minimum, and there was no great sense of urgency over vaccine procurement. Taiwan was low on international priority lists for vaccine donations, as its COVID-19 situation was considered under control.
From the outset, the government’s strategy relied heavily on the successful development of a domestically produced vaccine. It was always going to be a necessary plank of the government’s exit strategy after other nations began opening up their economies. By far, the best case scenario was for the domestic vaccine to go through all three clinical trials and to receive internationally recognized approval.
Until May, it had seemed that the government had the luxury of time on its side. However, when the outbreak occured, the KMT smelled blood and started asking where the vaccines were, even though it had not pressed the government on this matter before.
Promoting domestic vaccine production has many upsides, including self-sufficiency for this and future pandemics, the development of an important sector of the biotechnology industry, the cultivation of homegrown talent and the chance to engage in vaccine diplomacy, following the donations of personal protective equipment to countries in need at the beginning of the pandemic. All those could further increase Taiwan’s international profile.
The outbreak changed this equation, increasing the urgency to vaccinate the population and leaving the government exposed to criticism over its failure to procure jabs from abroad prior to a diplomatic flurry, donations and assistance from private entities that have ordered millions of doses.
It has also changed the timeline. Taiwan is now receiving vaccines from abroad. These jabs are approved, and proven to be safe and efficacious over a much longer period than the Taiwan-made Medigen COVID-19 vaccine, which has been tested in relatively small-scale clinical trials. Yet the government has continued to expedite Medigen’s trial process, granted it emergency use authorization and listed it as an option for Taiwanese to choose. Despite constraints to the trials and its relatively untested performance “in the wild,” the government is confident that the Medigen jab is safe and efficacious.
Tsai yesterday announced on Facebook that she would opt for the domestically developed vaccine and encouraged Taiwanese to do so, too.
It is right that the government promotes the domestic pharmaceutical sector, and it is unfortunate that the KMT chooses not to.
Although the KMT’s obfuscations, disinformation and objections over the Medigen vaccine can be disregarded as clumsy politicking, the party is at least doing its job as opposition in urging caution.
By tying her political fortune so tightly to the success of the domestic vaccine, Tsai is making herself politically vulnerable. Should negative side effects, or even fatalities, occur after vaccinations with the Medigen jab, the opposition will pounce, and it is not difficult to foresee willingness to get inoculated with the domestic vaccine becoming a partisan issue.
The question is whether that was necessary. As Taiwan is receiving more donations and international orders are starting to be delivered, the government had a window of opportunity to extend the trials and the approval process for the Medigen vaccine.
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