A deal for Taiwan to buy 5 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech SE is on hold, the island’s health minister said on Wednesday, citing potential Chinese pressure for the delay.
Taiwan was extremely close to securing 5 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine late last year, but the deal fell through at the last minute due to interference from outside sources, Taiwan's health minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) said Wednesday.
Chen said on a local radio show that Taiwan began reaching out to international companies that were developing COVID-19 vaccines in June last year.
By December, Taiwan was close to securing 5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer and German biotech firm BioNTech (BNT) through direct negotiations with BNT, Chen said.
"We were at the final step in the process, and we had already written and read each other's press releases," when the deal was called off, Chen said.
"Maybe someone didn't want Taiwan to be too happy," he said, without providing any specifics on what BNT told him when the deal fell through or other details on what happened.
The show's host, Clara Chou (周玉蔻), speculated without citing any sources that the interference came from China and the Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group, a Chinese company that is BNT's agent for the COVID-19 vaccine in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.
Chen did not refute Chou's speculation, though he said "one can't say definitely" who caused the deal to fall through and that there "may have been many factors" involved in BNT's decision.
When asked why Fosun would have the power to interfere with the deal, Chen said that he thought it was because there was a financial relationship between BNT and Fosun.
The two companies' distribution deal included Taiwan, and it was reasonable that Fosun would want to protect its financial interests, Chen said.
At no point did BNT ask that Taiwan discuss the vaccine deal with Fosun, and Fosun never reached out directly to Taiwan, Chen said.
Chen had planned to announce the deal with BNT in late December, saying publicly on Dec. 30 that Taiwan had secured 5 million doses of a vaccine from an international company he could not name, but he could not follow up on that pledge once the deal was called off.
He was criticized at the time for not being transparent about the vaccine issue, though Chen said he was in reality "suffering in silence."
Despite his inference that China and Fosun were blocking the deal, Chen refused to say it was dead, describing its status as "pending."
To date, Taiwan has secured 14.76 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine (10 million supplied through a deal with AstraZeneca and the rest through COVAX), and 5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine produced by U.S. company Moderna.