By Fabian Hamacher
TAIPEI -President Tsai Ing-wen got vaccinated with Taiwan’s first domestically developed COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, giving her personal stamp of approval as the island begins rolling out the shot whose approval critics say has been rushed.
The health ministry last month approved the emergency use of Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corp’s COVID-19 vaccine, part of a broader plan for inoculation self-sufficiency as delays in vaccine deliveries from global drug companies have affected Taiwan and many other countries.
Tsai, who had held off using vaccines from Moderna Inc or AstraZeneca Plc, the current mainstay of Taiwan’s vaccination programme, received her Medigen shot at a hospital in central Taipei, demonstrating her confidence in the safety of the vaccine.
Tsai chatted to medical workers as they prepared her shot, the whole process being broadcast live on her Facebook page, and gave a short response of “no” to a shouted question from reporters about whether she was nervous.
“It doesn’t hurt, I’m in good spirits, and I’m going to continue working for the day,” she later wrote on Facebook.
The government says the initial experience of the pandemic last year, when basic supplies such as face masks were in short supply, made it realise they had to be able to rely on themselves for critical materials.
Medigen, whose Chinese name literally means “high-end”, rejects claims its vaccine is either unsafe or that it has been sent to market with undue haste, saying it is effective and well tested.
“We have done so many experiments, everyone has seen how safe our vaccine is,” Medigen’s Chief Executive Officer Charles Chen told Reuters.
The recombinant protein vaccine has been developed in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health in the United States, and the government has ordered an initial 5 million doses. It says nobody will be forced to get it.
The vaccine has yet to finish clinical trials and no efficacy data is available, but the government says studies so far have shown that antibodies created by the shot have been “no worse than” those created by AstraZeneca’s vaccine.
Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang, or KMT, has mounted a fierce campaign against the shot, saying that while it supports domestic vaccines, Medigen’s approval has been rushed.
“There is no need for the lives and health of the Taiwanese people to serve as white rats in a laboratory,” Ho Chih-yung, deputy head of the KMT‘s international department, told Reuters.
Around 40% of Taiwan’s 23.5 million people have received at least one shot of either of the two-dose AstraZeneca or Moderna vaccines, though fewer than 5% are fully vaccinated.
However, unlike some other parts of Asia, Taiwan faces no huge pressure to accelerate its vaccination drive, with domestic infections well under control. It has reported 15,932 infections since the pandemic began, including 828 deaths.
Taiwan has received more than 10 million vaccine doses to date, and in July ordered a further 36 million doses of Moderna’s.
People who spoke to Reuters in Taipei after getting the Medigen shot said they had no particular concerns about it.
“I think my body is pretty good because I do dragon boat racing, so I can be a lab rat,” said bank worker Wu Meng-ru, 30.