By Yimou Lee
TAIPEI – Germany’s BioNTech asked Taiwan to remove the word “country” from an announcement they planned to make on a COVID-19 vaccine sale to the island, its health minister said on Thursday, giving details of the deal whose axing was blamed on China by Taipei.
Taiwan and China are engaged in an escalating war of words after Beijing offered the shots to the Chinese-claimed island via Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co Ltd, which has a contract to sell them in Greater China.
Taiwan Health Minister Chen Shih-chung told a daily news briefing the government had signed and sent back a “final contract” agreed with BioNTech after months of negotiations, and the two sides were on the verge of issuing a press release on Jan. 8.
But four hours later “BioNTech suddenly sent a letter, saying they strongly recommend us to change the word ‘our country’ in the Chinese version of the press release,” Chen said.
The government agreed to tweak the wording to “Taiwan” on the same day, he added.
A week later, Chen said, his government was informed by BioNTech the completion of the deal will be delayed due to a “revaluation of global vaccine supply and adjusted timelines”.
“It’s crystal clear to me that the contract was finalised,” he added.
“There’s no problem within the contract. The problem was something outside of the contract,” he said, without elaborating.
BioNTech declined to comment.
China considers Taiwan its own territory and strongly objects to any references that imply Taiwan is a separate country.
Chen’s comments came a day after Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen directly accused China of blocking the deal with BioNTech.
The German company, which sells its vaccine in partnership with Pfizer Inc, declined to comment on Tsai’s remarks.
Taiwan’s medical system is coming under increasing strain due to a spike in domestic infections with only about 1% of the population of more than 23 million vaccinated.
China has repeatedly said its vaccine offer via BioNTech’s Chinese sales agent Fosun is sincere and Taiwan should not put up political roadblocks.
Taiwan does not believe China is sincere in offering it vaccines and thinks Beijing is launching a “political warfare” against the island, officials briefed on the matter told Reuters.
Taiwan announced 667 new domestic COVID-19 cases on Thursday, including 266 cases added to previous days’ totals.
It has reported 6,761 infections since the pandemic began, including 59 deaths.