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TAIPEI, Taiwan — This is the age of “vaccine diplomacy.” It is also the era of its bitter, mudslinging opposite.
For months, Taiwan has been unable to purchase doses of the BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, and the island’s leaders blame “Chinese intervention.” China, which regards Taiwan as its own territory, calls this accusation “fabricated out of nothing.”
It is unclear what steps, if any, the government in Beijing has taken to disrupt Taiwan’s dealings with BioNTech, the German drugmaker that developed the vaccine with Pfizer. BioNTech declined to comment.
But the crux of the problem is that a Chinese company claims the exclusive commercial rights to distribute BioNTech’s vaccine in Taiwan. And for many people in the self-governing democracy, buying shots from a mainland Chinese business is simply unpalatable.
The impasse is exacerbating Taiwan’s vaccine shortage as the island confronts its first major outbreak of Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. It is a bleak illustration of how deeply entrenched the long-running conflict across the Taiwan Strait has become, with a degree of mutual distrust that not even a global medical emergency can allay.
Beijing’s efforts to stand between Taiwan and the wider world began spilling into public health a long time ago. China has for years blocked the island from participating in the World Health Assembly, the policy body of the World Health Organization.
China has a say in Taiwan’s inoculation campaign because BioNTech last year partnered with a Shanghai company, Fosun Pharma, to distribute its Covid vaccine in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. BioNTech’s partner in the United States, the European Union and other places is Pfizer.
China says Taiwan is flouting this arrangement by trying to buy doses directly from BioNTech. Taiwan says it respects the companies’ partnership but hopes their relationship will not get in the way of the island’s vaccine purchases.
Beijing also warned against “meddling in China’s internal affairs” after Japan said it was donating 1.2 million AstraZeneca doses to Taiwan. Chinese officials were similarly peeved this month when three U.S. senators visited the island to announce a donation of 750,000 doses. On Tuesday, Taiwan said 28 Chinese military aircraft entered the island’s southwestern air defense identification zone, the largest such show of force in months.
As Covid infections have spread in Taiwan, Chinese representatives have accused the island’s leaders of putting politics above health by refusing to accept Chinese-made vaccines. Chinese state news media has underlined the point by highlighting the “Taiwan compatriots” who have gotten vaccinated in China.
“On the vaccine issue or the pandemic issue, I think China is trying to exploit any opportunity they can have,” said Lee Che-chuan of the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a think tank funded by Taiwan’s government.
Beijing, Mr. Lee said, is telling Taiwan: “You are part of China. I can give you vaccines. But if you want to purchase them from some other countries, you have a political purpose: You’re trying to indicate you are independent from China.”
Taiwan’s inoculation efforts have taken on greater urgency since a wave of new Covid cases caused the island to enter a soft lockdown last month. The government has placed orders with AstraZeneca, Moderna and two domestic vaccine makers. But shipments have been slow to materialize. Less than 5 percent of the island’s 23.5 million people have been vaccinated so far.
Taiwan began talking with BioNTech about buying five million doses last August, the island’s health minister, Chen Shih-chung, said during a recent news conference. The two sides had largely agreed on a contract by December, according to Mr. Chen. On Jan. 8, BioNTech approved Taiwan’s draft news releases announcing the deal in Chinese and English.
But four hours later, BioNTech came back with a request, Mr. Chen said. The company wanted the word “country” in the Chinese-language news release to be replaced with “Taiwan.”
Beijing is extremely sensitive to any suggestion that Taiwan is an autonomous nation.
Taiwanese officials agreed to make the change, Mr. Chen said. But BioNTech said it needed to consider the matter further. The deal has been on hold ever since.
“It wasn’t because of a problem within the contract, but rather a problem outside the contract,” Mr. Chen said.
The chief executive of Fosun Pharma, BioNTech’s partner for Greater China, recently told China’s Xinhua state news agency that the company would gladly supply vaccines to “Taiwan compatriots.”
Whether Taiwan would accept those doses is more complicated. Taiwanese law forbids the import of Chinese-made vaccines. But Mr. Chen suggested on Wednesday that Taiwan would be open to importing BioNTech shots if Fosun were acting only as their distributor, not manufacturer. Fosun didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Recently, discussions have taken place about a vaccine deal for Taiwan that would involve not only BioNTech and Fosun, but also Zuellig Pharma, a Swiss-owned health services, cold storage and logistics company, according to two people familiar with the matter. Such a deal might allow BioNTech to honor its partnership with Fosun while also satisfying the Taiwanese authorities by reducing Fosun’s role.
Zuellig has partnered with Moderna to supply Moderna’s vaccine in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. A Zuellig spokeswoman declined to comment, as did Taiwan’s central epidemic command center.
BioNTech and Fosun have already delivered vaccines from Germany to Hong Kong and Macau, and they are preparing to manufacture BioNTech’s vaccine at a Fosun facility for the China market. Fosun Pharma’s parent company is Fosun International, a Shanghai-based conglomerate with interests in insurance, property, fashion, retail, tourism and more.
In a poll conducted in late May by researchers at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, three-quarters of respondents said they wouldn’t take a Chinese vaccine. More than half, though, said they would receive a European or American vaccine purchased through a Chinese distributor.
Like many in Taiwan, Tim Hsu, a 30-year-old software engineer, didn’t feel much need to get inoculated until cases started ticking up in mid-May. Even now, though, he said he wouldn’t trust a Chinese-made vaccine. He said he had shopped enough on Chinese e-commerce sites not to have much faith in Chinese goods.
But if a Chinese company were just the vaccine’s distributor? “If it’s purely a commercial agent and the source is still the same widely used vaccine from Germany, then actually that’s fine,” Mr. Hsu said.
Germany’s de facto embassy in Taiwan, the German Institute Taipei, said this month that it “tried hard” to facilitate communication between BioNTech and the Taiwanese authorities. But it is uncertain how much Germany’s government is able or willing to help broker a deal, given the risk of angering Beijing. A spokesman for the German Institute Taipei declined to comment.
“China’s vaccine strategy goes beyond just economic interest,” said Elena Meyer-Clement, who studies Chinese politics and business at the Free University of Berlin. “It has become a geopolitical question, which means you can rely on the fact that the political leadership in Beijing keeps an eye on these deals.”
Professor Meyer-Clement said she believed BioNTech had tried selling vaccines directly to Taiwan in good faith, not to deliberately sidestep its agreement with Fosun Pharma.
“If they had refused to even attempt it, it would have been tantamount to self-censorship,” she said. “I think it was really just about getting vaccines to Taiwan.”
Still, she said BioNTech was naïve to give initial signoff to a news release that used the word “country” in the Taiwan context.
“It’s something someone with experience dealing with Taiwan should have known,” she said.
Raymond Zhong reported from Taipei and Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin. Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting from Taipei.
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