The island of 23 million people had recorded close to zero local infections for months, and demand for the vaccine was so low that only 1% of the population was vaccinated.
But in this pandemic things can change quickly. Today, Taiwan is battling its worst outbreak yet, reporting more than 1,000 new cases in the past week, and has a population that wants the vaccine — but can’t get it.
But in theory, there could be a solution for Taiwan right on its doorstep: Chinese vaccines.
Taipei doesn’t see it that way, and has accused Beijing of blocking its supply, rather than trying to boost it.
On Wednesday, Presidential Office spokeswoman Kolas Yotaka said on Twitter: “Taiwan access to vaccines continues to be slowed down by Chinese interference, while they insist we buy Chinese made ones. If you really want to help please don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall.”
But as a war of words around vaccines rages on, the reality is Taiwan’s slow vaccine rollout goes far deeper than geopolitical tensions with China.
Taiwan has ordered 20 million vaccine doses — enough to fully vaccinate 43% of its population. But, so far, only about 700,000 doses have arrived, and all are made by AstraZeneca.
According to the island’s official Central News Agency (CNA), Taiwan signed a deal with AstraZeneca last year to purchase 10 million doses of its vaccine. In March, 117,000 doses were finally shipped from a South Korean factory, becoming the first vaccines to arrive on the island.
Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s de-facto ambassador to the US, said as demand for vaccines in Taiwan was initially low, she had focused on helping Taipei’s diplomatic allies secure vaccines. But now she is working to ensure Taiwan’s orders are delivered on time, according to CNA.
In mid-April, it allowed people outside the government’s priority list to be vaccinated at a cost of 600 New Taiwan dollars ($21) per shot.
“Over the last 1.5 years, Taiwan did not experience a major outbreak, so many residents did not feel they were in any immediate danger,” said Chen Hsiu-hsi, an epidemiology professor at National Taiwan University. “This is why not many people had the incentive to take Covid-19 vaccines.”
But the spike in cases this month has caused alarm, prompting some residents to rush to get vaccinated. Before the latest batch from COVAX arrived on Wednesday, Taiwan had used up two-thirds of its 300,000-dose vaccine supply.
As supplies run short, the Taiwanese government has suspended the paid-for program, reserving all remaining doses for frontline workers, according to the CNA.
Chen Hsiu-hsi, the epidemiologist, said about 30% of Taiwan’s medical workers had now been vaccinated. He is hopeful that number will reach 50% with the newly arrived 400,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Developing its own vaccines
When it comes to developing its own Covid-19 vaccine, Taiwan has lagged the efforts of the US, the UK, Germany, China and Russia.
On Tuesday, President Tsai Ing-wen said two Taiwanese vaccine candidates had reached the end of stage 2 clinical trials.
According to Tsai, the two vaccines developed by Taiwanese companies, Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corporation and United Biomedical, are expected to become available by the end of July, if they secure emergency use authorization next month.
Chen, the epidemiologist, said he was optimistic about Taiwan’s domestically developed vaccines. “They have reported good results in stage 2 clinical trials, and it looks like they also respond well to different variants in a laboratory setting.”
Until then, Chen said, Taiwan will need to rely on foreign vaccines to deal with the crisis — but just not those from its closest neighbor with the largest supply.