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CORONAVIRUS/Premier requested by lawmakers to discuss Medigen vaccine case

01/08/2024 06:40 PM
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A Medigen vaccine production facility. CNA photo Jan. 8, 2023
A Medigen vaccine production facility. CNA photo Jan. 8, 2023

Taipei, Jan. 8 (CNA) The Legislative Yuan passed a motion on Monday to hold a special session on Tuesday, in which Premier Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) and relevant Cabinet ministries will be asked questions regarding the government's purchase of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Taiwan-based Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corp.

Chen has been asked by opposition lawmakers to make the government's purchase agreement with Medigen public, and he and his colleagues are expected to face questions from lawmakers about whether the agreement was appropriate and in the public interest.

The motion was proposed by the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) on Jan. 3, four days after Vice President Lai Ching-te (賴清德), the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said in a presidential debate that he agreed with the opposition request to publicize the purchase agreement.

Lai said in the Dec. 30 debate that since the Medigen purchasing price had been disclosed, the public had the right to gain more knowledge of the deal in a bid to minimize opposition attacks.

On Monday, Taiwan People's Party caucus whip Chiu Chen-yuan (邱臣遠) said that although his party supported the government's efforts in developing the local vaccine industry, it could not accept a purchasing deal that lacked transparency and appeared to only benefit one certain developer, indicating Medigen.

The vaccine developed by Medigen in the early phase of the pandemic was granted Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration on July 19, 2021.

At the time, only 20 percent of Taiwan's population had received a shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, with demand hugely outstripping supply following the country's first large-scale outbreak that summer.

The EUA became controversial because it had been granted when phase III clinical trials had not been completed.

Instead, the results of the vaccine's phase II trial were analyzed using immunobridging, an approach that uses immune responses in clinical trial participants to infer the vaccine's overall level of protection.

Despite doubts about the EUA granted to Medigen, the vaccine's rollout on Aug. 23, 2021 was touted as a triumph for Taiwan's biotech sector. Many government officials, including President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), received a shot of the vaccine in public to demonstrate their support for the locally developed product.

Medigen disclosed in November 2022 that its NT$4.03 billion (US$130 million) agreement with the government involved a purchase of 5 million doses, of which 200,000 were donations for the government's help in funding the vaccine's development.

The average price of each of the 4.8 million paid-for doses equaled around NT$840, according to Medigen.

Of the 5 million doses, 68 percent were used, while the remaining 1.6 million expired and were destroyed, with the government stating Medigen's task had been completed.

Echoing Chiu, KMT caucus whip Tseng Ming-chung (曾銘宗) said the KMT supported locally developed vaccines, like the efforts put in by his party to cultivate the local semiconductor industry by supporting Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), which has become the world's largest contract chipmaker.

However, the KMT could not support the government's move to block other vaccine purchases, Tseng said, questioning why only doses from Medigen were purchased at a time when people in Taiwan desperately needed vaccines to protect themselves.

Business tycoon Terry Gou (郭台銘) slammed the government for allegedly blocking his attempt in May 2021 to buy the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The government has repeatedly denied this accusation.

Taiwan eventually bought 15 million vaccines from BioNTech in July 2021 through the support of three organizations, including a foundation affiliated with the world's largest contract electronics maker Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., founded by Gou.

In a statement, the New Power Party said it supported the motion to hold a special session on the legislative floor and ask the premier to answer questions regarding the Medigen case.

Despite being urged by the opposition to publicize the purchase agreement with Medigen, the premier said last week that as the vaccine developer is a stock-listed company, the disclosure of the agreement needs approval from its shareholders.

Chen added that the government has been in talks with Medigen about publicizing the agreement.

In response to the motion to hold a special session, DPP caucus convener Ker Chien-ming (柯建銘) said it was a desperate bid by the KMT to try and win the Jan. 13 vote.

Ker said it seemed the KMT did not have any alternative campaign strategies to win, which had led to it focusing on the Medigen deal, in which, he noted, prosecutors had found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Cabinet spokesman Lin Tze-luen (林子倫) said in a statement on Monday that he regretted the smear tactics being used by opposition parties and that the Medigen deal had been agreed based on normal international commercial practices.

Lin said the Cabinet has repeatedly clarified details regarding the Medigen deal through written statements, videos, and its special reports at the Legislative Yuan, denying the agreement lacked any transparency.

Expressing concern, he stated that the disclosure of the Medigen purchase agreement could potentially damage the government's trustworthiness and impact the willingness of foreign vaccine developers to supply products to Taiwan in the future.

Despite these concerns, Lin assured that the premier and relevant Cabinet ministers would participate in the special session to address questions. This initiative is part of the government's efforts to dispel unfounded rumors and protect the reputation of frontline medical personnel, he said.

(By Fan Cheng-hsiang, Chen Chun-hua, Evelyn Kao, Matthew Mazzetta, Ko Lin and Frances Huang)


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