Taiwan has accused China of obstructing its efforts to buy coronavirus vaccines from BioNTech, in the latest example of a political dispute that threatens the fight against the pandemic.
Taipei was on the verge of signing a contract for the purchase of 5m courses from the German pharmaceuticals company in December when the deal stalled, Chen Shih-chung, Taiwan’s health minister, said in a radio interview on Wednesday.
“We believe there was political pressure,” he said. “We had already exchanged draft press releases for the respective other side to look at, we had already gotten that far, and only the final step remained to be taken, when things changed.”
China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and insists that other governments, international organisations and private companies treat it as such. Taiwan has claimed that the World Health Organization, under Chinese pressure, failed to act on early warnings it sounded on Covid-19.
BioNTech has an agreement with Fosun Pharmaceutical, a Shanghai-based unit of the Hong Kong-listed conglomerate, as its general agent for Greater China. Chen said Taiwan had been lumped under Greater China in that agreement.
Although Chen did not name China, another Taiwanese senior government official said China was behind stalling the deal.
“We thought it more prudent to speak to the Germans directly, rather than go through a Chinese company that has to comply with Beijing’s policies,” he said. “Our understanding is that when the contract was ready to be signed in December, Fosun Pharmaceutical intervened.”
This official and another official involved in the country’s efforts to obtain the vaccine said that TTY Biopharm, a leading Taiwanese pharmaceutical company headed by former prime minister Lin Chuan, had been involved in talks with BioNTech.
Chen said Taiwan had been in talks with BioNTech directly, without involving its Chinese agent, since June. He added the German company had never demanded it negotiate through Fosun, and the Taiwanese government had never been in touch with the Chinese company.
However, the minister said he believed Fosun had been in touch with Taiwanese counterparts about vaccine sales through commercial channels. “There is nothing to say against Fosun protecting their commercial interests,” he said.
Taiwan has managed one of the world’s most successful containments of the coronavirus as early border closures and aggressive contact tracing have mostly prevented a spread of the virus in the community. The country had only 938 confirmed cases and nine deaths as of Wednesday.
But it has been slower than many other countries in rolling out its vaccination programme. The health ministry said it had confirmed delivery of 10m jabs from AstraZeneca and another 5m from Moderna, and expects vaccination to kick off in late March. If the deal with BioNTech falls through, it will fail in its goal to vaccinate a majority of its population of 24m.
Fosun did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A public relations firm for BioNTech in Asia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Chinese government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.