With a little more than two months to go before the Nov. 26 elections for mayors, county commissioners and councilors, the daily litany of political attacks, lies, arguments and accusations is intensifying, with most people getting tired of them. The main topic has now inexplicably shifted from “plagiarism” to “blocking vaccines,” but what do local elections have to do with vaccines? Perhaps only in Taiwan could politicians and commentators in the run-up to voting day avoid talking about political visions and instead squabble about last year’s vaccine purchases.
In every country, the planning and implementation of COVID-19 vaccination policies are the responsibility of the central government. All of the COVID-19 vaccines being used in the world were made available under emergency use authorization, with huge numbers of people to be vaccinated. Consequently, vaccine effects could not be observed over a long period before being approved. Although there were few vaccine injuries at the trial stage, such incidents are sure to occur, even if it is only one in 10,000.
Except for special circumstances, no local government, business group, civic organization, hospital or medical group is qualified to get involved in the procurement or distribution of vaccines, because no such organization, other than the national government, has the ability to arrange compensation for vaccine injuries. As such entities cannot purchase vaccines, everything depends on the central government.
So how can anyone say: “We would have bought vaccines if the central government had not blocked them”?
However, in Taiwan, members of the public, political parties and groups have been claiming that officials or someone else blocked them from buying vaccines more than a year ago, but they cannot say who actually did the blocking. As soon as the issue is raised, the people accused feel compelled to stop whatever they doing and claim their innocence, which must be tiring.
On Friday, a newspaper report said that the governments of Hualien, Nantou, Taitung and Yunlin, as well as companies in those counties, last year commissioned ShareHope Medicine Co to submit an application to import 5 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare said rumors that the government blocked ShareHope from importing vaccines were not true.
The reason the subsequent procedures could not be carried out was that the company could not provide the required information about the factory that made the vaccines, it said.
The ministry handled the matter badly, because no matter what business organizations or local government submitted such an application, they would clearly not be qualified to apply to make such a purchase, while the central government knew that no vaccine company would give such an applicant authorization.
The ministry should have said so right from the start and returned the application, so why did it ask the applicant for supporting documents? Was it because it was afraid of legal disputes or political incidents?
That is not an attitude that would be expected from a courageous and responsible government.
The Centers for Disease Control would have been delighted if more vaccines were imported to help control an outbreak at the time.
Why on Earth would it deliberately block imports of vaccines, allowing the disease to spread, potentially causing the healthcare system to collapse and large numbers of people to die, likely sparking protests that could bring the government down, as well as officials being prosecuted for dereliction of duty?
Would anyone do such an illogical and stupid thing? Yet this irrational scenario has been brought up again and again, without commentary or questioning by journalists, and the public seems willing to listen to it. It beggars belief.
There is no reasoning with an unreasonable person, which can be said of politicians in general. For example, the second-generation vaccines that are available around the world are all for the Omicron BA.1 subvariant of SARS-CoV-2, while vaccines for the BA.5 subvariant cannot be procured anywhere outside the US. Still, BA.1-based vaccines have been shown to be effective against BA.5.
The ministry has said it is on standby to buy vaccines for BA.5 as soon as they become available.
However, politicians from opposition parties and media moguls turn a deaf ear to the government’s explanations.
People keep accusing the government of failing to procure vaccines in good time and failing to act pre-emptively, and reporters never point out the error of such accusations. Instead, they just report untrue accusations regardless of the facts, while unquestioning readers and viewers take it all in and follow along with blaming the government. Is there still such a thing as reason in Taiwan?
Social resources and time are being wasted on talking about “vaccine blocking,” which concerns things that happened more than a year ago. As long as this goes on, the country can hardly move forward. Is that what Taiwanese really want?
If the ministry really had blocked vaccines as alleged, did it block the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or Chinese-made ones? The law prohibits imports of vaccines made in China, and that can only be changed by a legislative amendment.
The Regulations Governing Trade Between the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area (台灣地區與大陸地區貿易許可辦法) and the “consolidated list of mainland China products whose importation is prohibited” (大陸物品不准許輸入項目彙總表), which is published by the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Bureau of International Trade, say that Taiwan has never permitted imports of Chinese-made serums, blood preparations and vaccines.
This ban is not because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but because of long-standing doubts about China’s manufacturing processes, and because China has in the past experienced problems with many of its vaccines. As the law already forbids the importation of Chinese vaccines, how could the question of “blocking” them arise?
Jeremy Wang is a physician and a founding director of the Taiwan Association of Family Medicine.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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