Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen inspects a mask production line, after her administration banned selling or donating masks to mainland China. Photo: Handout

China and Taiwan have cast aside their many differences and reached a tentative deal on how to transport almost 500 Taiwanese stuck in the central Chinese province of Hubei as icy relations start to thaw.

The deal comes more than two months after people in Hubei started falling ill with what is now known as Covid-19. Experts say the virus started in the province at the end of 2019.

Starting from Tuesday, two charter flights, operated by China Airlines, the flag carrier of the self-governed island, and the mainland-based China Eastern, are scheduled to bring home 500 Taiwan nationals from Hubei’s provincial capital Wuhan, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency.

This is the second round of airlifts across the Taiwan Strait to evacuate Taiwanese in Hubei, more than one month after a China Eastern flight carried 247 passengers back to the island on February 3. The last airlift was 10 days after Wuhan went into a sweeping lockdown and train stations and the main airport were shut, with an outright travel ban to stem the outflow of the novel coronavirus.

Paramedics in protective gear and a China Eastern jet parked at Taipei’s Taoyuan Airport after an airlift to evacuate Taiwanese from Wuhan in early February. Photo: CNA

However, subsequent negotiations between Taiwan and China broke down due to the former’s insistence on deploying Taiwanese carriers and the latter’s intransigent stance that pulling Taiwanese out of Hubei must not leave people with even the slightest impression that Taiwan was a sovereign state.

Authorities on both sides of the strait blamed the opposite side for politicking and hindering efforts to evacuate the remaining Taiwanese.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office has blasted the island for refusing to take in more Taiwanese to be flown to the island from Hubei onboard Chinese planes, while Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has become more circumspect about airlifting more Taiwanese home, after a person evacuated from Wuhan was diagnosed with the acute respiratory disease.

Tsai said the mainland applied red tape and even threatened to confiscate medical items when the island sought to send drugs, masks and testing kits to Taiwanese in Hubei.

The Taiwanese scattered around and left behind in Hubei have cried foul, saying their plight has been overlooked in the crossfire in the war of words between the two feuding governments.

Yet back on the island, the viral spread is well-contained with its tally of cases standing at 47 as of Tuesday, significantly lower than that in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea. Tsai’s handling of the public health scare, including seeking representation in the World Health Organization, refusing entry by mainlanders and delaying further airlift missions out of Wuhan, has added to her popularity and avoided a local outbreak on the island.

Mainland China is flashing red on a map illustrating the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus, as Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen convenes an emergency meeting at the Ministry of Health.
Tsai inspects a drill simulating isolating infected patients. Taiwan has fewer confirmed cases compared with its regional neighbors. Photos: Handouts

On Monday, Taiwan’s Premier Su Tseng-chang said the government would dispatch a medical team to Wuhan for temperature screening of Taiwanese before those stranded there are allowed to board flights home.

After arriving at Taipei’s Taoyuan Airport, these passengers will be whisked by paramedics in protective gear to an on-site quarantine facility to further determine if they have any symptoms of the highly infectious virus. Following the preliminary check-up, they will then be escorted to undisclosed quarantine venues to undergo 14 days of quarantine.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s national academy Academia Sinica has refuted a claim by Chinese media that it relied on research data from China to develop a rapid screening reagent for Covid-19.

“China has nothing to do with our success,” Academia Sinica President James Liao said in response to media queries, adding that its exports synthesized monoclonal antibodies, in arguably the world’s first such breakthrough, that could identify the protein of the typical coronavirus that played a key role in the infections caused by Covid-19, SARS and MERS.

One of the antibodies synthesized has shown perfect efficiency in identifying the coronavirus that causes the pneumonia. The potential reagent, if successfully mass produced, would shorten the time needed for testing from about four hours to 15 to 20 minutes.

Taiwanese scientists produced 46 monoclonal antibodies in only 19 days, with each sample weighing at least 1mg, based on seven human coronavirus nucleocapsid protein antigens. One of the antibodies has demonstrated “perfect” efficiency in identifying the new coronavirus, because it does not react to other members of the coronavirus family, including those that cause SARS and MERS.

Clinical trials and mass production of the new reagent are expected within the next few months.

Yet a Xinhua report claimed that mainland chemists and virologists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences had also participated in the joint research for a rapid reagent, and contributed key lab data as well as human smear samples collected from infected patients in Wuhan that laid the foundation for the breakthrough.

Tsai has assured Taiwanese that factories across the island can now churn out no less than 10 million masks each day to address the supply crunch. Photo: Handout

Taiwanese authorities have added the new reagents under development to a list of medical items including surgical masks and protective suits that are banned from export to the mainland to prioritize the local supply. It was reported that several batches of drugs and masks donated by the island’s private businesses and NGOs had been intercepted and confiscated before they could be flown to Wuhan.

Previously, China’s National Health Commission insisted that the nation’s data-sharing with other regions on the viral outbreak would only be applicable to members of the WHO and “being part of China,” Taiwan could get data via “domestic communication channels.”

Taiwan has lodged complaints via other WHO members that shutting out the island in the WHO mechanism would jeopardize global efforts to combat the virus and put the well-being of the 23 million Taiwanese in danger.

Read more: WHO accused of being ‘affiliated’ with Beijing

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