Batches of vaccine are loaded off a cargo plane of China Airlines, Taiwan’s national carrier. Photo: Central News Agency

Taiwan has seen a frenzy of activity to get supplies of Covid vaccines as cases spike. But its geopolitical predicament is creating complications other countries are unlikely to face. 

The island’s identity appears to be holding back any meaningful progress as its government, amid people’s fury, is scrambling to get shots from anywhere except mainland China. 

Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party government was rebuffed by German drugmaker BioNTech earlier this year when it sought to get around a mainland Chinese distributor to get the messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) shots widely used in the West.

Now the island’s richest businessman has volunteered to help. 

Terry Gou, founder of manufacturing giant Foxconn, known for churning out Apple’s products from its mainland plants, has been teasing the 24 million Taiwanese forced indoors by quarantine and lockdown orders with donations of as many as 5 million mRNA doses from deals he can broker for the government.

German drugmaker BioNTech has sold the distribution right for the Greater China Region including Taiwan to Shanghai Fosun Phama in March 2020. The producer has turned down Taiwan’s requests for direct shipment of its shots to the self-governed island. Photo: CNA

Gou, worth US$9.1 billion according to Forbes, said on Facebook on Friday that his charitable organization Yong Lin Foundation had candid discussions with Taiwan’s Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, and, with documents submitted for drug import and emergency use approval, he hoped the lengthy turnaround from the government could be shortened. 

In Facebook posts alluding to the authorities’ dithering and red tape, the globetrotting Gou, also a heavyweight member of the Beijing-friendly opposition Kuomintang (KMT) Party, vowed he would leverage the overseas connections of his business empire to secure batches of “better shots” than the AstraZeneca jabs.

Take-up of AstraZeneca, the only vaccine rolled out for island-wide inoculations so far, is tepid amid reports of fatalities and severe side-effects. 

On Friday, Gou also ramped up pressure on Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen as infections climbed. The caseload passed 13,500, compared with just 2,017 about 30 days ago before the island’s worst-ever Covid-19 resurgence. 

Gou was once tipped as the KMT’s candidate to take on the incumbent Tsai in last year’s presidential sweepstakes, a race that pitted Gou and his conglomerates against the DPP government.

Taiwanese tycoon Terry Gou and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Facebook

Taiwan descended into complacency and slacked off its defense, allowing the virus to creep back. Until recently, Tsai was trumpeting the island as a role model for keeping the pandemic at bay.

Her government’s slow vaccine procurement and roll-out efforts have also exposed her to criticism from the KMT and even within her own party. 

But Gou has also been accused of political posturing and grandstanding as his donation plan may not come to pass. His Tweets and Facebook posts have deflected attention from how he aims to secure shots, feeding into the widespread perception that for Tsai and the DPP, political stakes still trump people’s health.

Tsai and the DPP are seen as wanting to scupper Gou’s bid as shots he donates would create goodwill he might want to tap for the 2024 race. 

The China Times, the KMT’s de-facto mouthpiece, said Gou is likely to broach a supply deal with Shanghai Fosun Pharma, the exclusive distribution and marketing agent for BioNTech’s drugs in the Greater China region that includes Taiwan. 

Fosun said it was ready to ship the German-made jabs to the island, with the firm’s president Wu Yifang saying at last week’s annual general meeting in Shanghai that any government agencies or businesses from Taiwan must place orders via Fosun as BioNTech would be contractually bound to turn away anyone from the island.

The Chinese firm has been shipping vials to Hong Kong and Macau and is seeking Beijing’s approval for sale on the mainland. 

Tsai’s independence-leaning government has ruled out buying via Fosun due to its mainland identity and sought to blame the stalled procurement on Beijing’s sabotage. But analysts say Gou may still be ignored even after he can get Tsai’s nod to approach BioNTech, as the drugmaker seeks not to be enmeshed in the feud between China and Taiwan. 

Terry Gou’s Tweets and Facebook posts have deflected attention from how he aims to secure vaccines. Photo: AFP

Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office also said last week that adequate batches of mainland vaccines had been primed for the island but Tsai had refused to take them. 

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s semiofficial Central News Agency on Friday quoted a senior executive at Gou’s foundation as saying that the tycoon may contact Fosun’s subsidiaries in Europe, such as its branch in Switzerland, for shots.

These would be shipped to the island through a third country. Gou reportedly gave an assurance that all contracts to be signed with Fosun would have no mention or clause stating Taiwan is part of China. 

The report also said provisos about the donation still needed to be worked out by Gou and the government to ascertain legal obligations and the government’s waiver of some legal liabilities of the donor, decisions that could only be made by Tsai.

Tsai is facing mounting pressure to secure vaccines for Taiwan now in the grip of Covid. Photo: CNAP

In the latest development, Taiwan’s Executive Yuan said on Friday afternoon that it would authorize Gou’s foundation and chipmaker TSMC to each procure 5 million mRNA doses from BioNTech on behalf of the island’s government, after Tsai’s hastily arranged meeting with Gou and TSMC president Mark Liu.

Still, delivery would be subject to the latter’s production schedule. Scant details have been given on the meeting, and an Executive Yuan spokesperson told CNA that the government would seek help from the German authorities amid reports that production at BioNTech is stuck in a bottleneck. 

Tsai, in the meantime, is still confident her government can pull it off without Gou’s donations. The island has taken delivery of more than 720,000 AstraZeneca shots since March. About 240,000 shots from American manufacturer Moderna are said to have arrived in Taiwan, coming hot on the heels of the first batch of 150,000 doses delivered at the end of May. 

The island has placed orders of 5.05 million jabs with Moderna and is revving up its own trials and approval of homegrown vaccines. Tsai said this week that she hoped watchdogs could clear all the procedures by the end of July.

The US and Japan have both promised to donate shots and other medical supplies as the island’s de-facto allies recommit themselves to solidarity and aid.