Beijing May Have Scuppered Taiwan's Vaccine Roll-Out, Hints Health Minister

A deal for Taipei to purchase five million vaccines from German developer BioNTech fell through at the last minute, likely due to "political pressure" from Beijing, Taiwan's health minister hinted on Wednesday.

The agreement had reached its final stages and both parties were already reviewing their respective press releases when BioNTech pulled the plug in December, Chen Shih-chung told radio host Clara Chou during an interview for Hit FM.

BioNTech's global vaccine distribution is done through American pharmaceutical company Pfizer. It has an exclusive agreement with Shanghai's Fosun Pharma to sell to the Greater China region, which includes China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, said Chen.

However, he added that Taipei dealt directly with BioNTech and other authorized intermediaries. The Taiwanese government was not asked to negotiate with Fosun Pharma.

In a press release about the distribution agreement last March, BioNTech said it would receive a fee of $135 million from Fosun Pharma. The deal included a $50 million investment in the German company's shares.

Taiwan's minister of health and welfare had announced in December the island's plans to acquire some 20 million vaccines for its population of 23.5 million, with the stage-one roll-out meant to begin as early as March. The batch was to comprise 10 million doses from UK developer AstraZeneca, five million from the COVAX program and another five million from an unnamed foreign company.

Chen named the company as BioNTech for the first time on Wednesday, revealing that he was "worried about potential intervention by outside forces" throughout the negotiation process, referencing the regional distributor Fosun Pharma, which has links to Chinese state enterprise Sinopharm Group.

The minister did not name China directly, but said "political pressure" was a possible factor in the last-minute collapse of the deal, which he said could be revisited.

"Someone didn't want Taiwan to be happy," said Chen during the radio segment, before adding there would be no reason to blame Fosun Pharma if it was trying to "protect its commercial interests."

BioNTech's backing out of the vaccine deal "disrupted Taiwan's vaccine roll-out," Taiwan's health minister told reporters after the radio appearance.

Chen said it was "rare" for a deal to fall through so late, given the advanced stage of discussions at the time. BioNTech cited "internal disagreements" and global distribution requirements as reasons behind the last-minute cancelation, the minister said.

"I can't provide evidence as to what exactly happened," he added, calling the incident "unusual."

Neither BioNTech nor Fosun Pharma have responded publicly to the Taiwanese health official's comment.

Meanwhile, analysts have expressed concern about Beijing's alleged efforts to hinder Taiwan's vaccination program.

"Anger over Taiwan's vaccine rollout—something people were starting to become frustrated with the Tsai admin over—is now going to be completely redirected at China (for good reason)," tweeted Lev Nachman, a visiting scholar at National Taiwan University in Taipei.

"China keeps giving Tsai more legitimacy points and stoking more anti-PRC sentiment in Taiwan," he added.

Chen, who is most often seen leading daily press conferences about Taiwan's pandemic response, has come under scrutiny in recent weeks due to the government's perceived failure to secure vaccines in a timely manner.

Vocal critics include former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou—of the opposition Kuomintang party—who has called on the current administration of Tsai Ing-wen to acquire vaccines made in China.

Officials in Beijing have also accused Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party of politicizing the pandemic by refusing to accept Chinese vaccines.

A Reuters report last month said Beijing was now prioritizing Taiwanese in China for vaccine jabs in an attempt to win over residents of the democratic island nation, which the Communist Party claims is part of its territory.

Bryce Barros, a researcher with the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy, described the BioNTech incident as "another unfortunate example of how China wields economic coercion to try to erode trust in Taiwan's government."

"This revelation by Health Minister Chen Shih-chung is timely given the vaccination priority provided to Taiwanese in China," added Barros, who analyzes Chinese malign influence for the D.C. think tank.

Taiwan would consider purchasing any vaccine that was deemed "safe and effective," health minister Chen said at Wednesday's Taiwan CDC press briefing.

The Chinese vaccines, which are awaiting approval to join WHO-backed COVAX, lack "technical data," Chen said, adding: "I don't know how many people [in Taiwan] actually want to use [Chinese vaccines]."

Chen said the government has set a vaccine target of 30 million doses, a portion of which would eventually include domestically made jabs.

Taiwan CDC official Chou Jih-haw said Taipei was in contact with other developers, including U.S. companies Johnson & Johnson and Novavax, whose trials are being closely monitored.

Taiwanese Health Minister Addresses Press
File photo: Taiwanese health minister Chen Shih-chung. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images