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Premier defends purchase of Medigen vaccine amid transparency concerns

01/09/2024 04:22 PM
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Premier Chen Chien-jen defends the government's purchase of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Taiwan-based Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corp. on Tuesday. CNA photo Jan. 9, 2024
Premier Chen Chien-jen defends the government's purchase of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Taiwan-based Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corp. on Tuesday. CNA photo Jan. 9, 2024

Taipei, Jan. 9 (CNA) Premier Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) on Tuesday defended the government's purchase of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Taiwan-based Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corp. in 2021, amid ongoing accusations that the deal lacked transparency.

As the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding in 2020, Taiwan's government encouraged local manufacturers to develop a home-grown vaccine, and Medigen's product eventually received emergency use approval.

But amid questions in 2021 over the government's dealing with Medigen, including accusations that it paid an excessively high price for its vaccine, government officials said the contract was being "preserved for 30 years" with a confidentiality period of five years.

That only raised questions about what was in the contract and prompted calls for it to be released publicly, issues that have reemerged ahead of Taiwan's Jan. 13 presidential and legislative elections.

Legislators called for a special session to quiz the premier on the transaction, and he defended the process to reporters before the hearing began.

"There is nothing to hide in the contract between the government and Medigen," Chen said.

In response to demands to disclose the contract, Chen said the Cabinet and relevant ministries have indicated repeatedly that the government has endorsed the idea, but that any disclosure would have to adhere to specific procedures.

He said the government has discussed the issue with Medigen and urged the company to disclose the agreement, while dismissing arguments that the government was shifting the responsibility of making the deal public to Medigen.

According to Chen, the contract between the government and Medigen was signed in compliance with relevant laws and regulations and international trade practices.

He said it was necessary to get the consent of the other party before the contract was disclosed and that unilaterally releasing it would compromise the government's integrity.

If the government's integrity was called into question, it could lead to companies rejecting future government purchases of items such as vaccines and drugs, which would not only hurt Taiwan's credibility but also jeopardize people's health, he said.

He called on opposition parties and "individuals with their own agendas" not to undermine the efforts and contributions of Taiwan's epidemic prevention personnel for personal political gain.

During Tuesday's session, Chen was questioned by opposition Taiwan People's Party caucus whip Chiu Chen-yuan (邱臣遠) and Kuomintang legislative caucus head Tseng Ming-chung (曾銘宗) about whether there had been "abnormal fluctuations" in Medigen-related stock prices during the COVID-19 epidemic.

Chen sidestepped the question, saying only: "In the process of developing vaccines around the world, when animal experiments and clinical trials are successful, the stock price [of the vaccine manufacturer] will continue to rise, but if the experiment fails, [the stock price] will fall."

He cited the examples of Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, which he said both saw fluctuations in their stock prices based on the development of their drugs.

"[The fluctuations] are completely normal," he said.

A vial of Taiwan-based Medigen Vaccine. CNA file photo
A vial of Taiwan-based Medigen Vaccine. CNA file photo

In a statement Tuesday, Medigen acknowledged receiving an official request from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, asking the company to agree to disclose the contract publicly.

The manufacturer said it will convene a board of directors meeting to discuss this issue in accordance with the law.

As the vaccine was being developed, Medigen's stock price soared from a price of about NT$100 (US$3.22) in early January 2021 to about NT$216 by Feb. 22, according to Taipei Stock Exchange data.

It fell to about NT$172 on March 2 before soaring to NT$314 at the close on April 12, falling to NT$259 on April 22 and then hitting its all-time closing high at NT$417 on May 17.

It then plunged to a close of NT$207.50 on June 7 before rebounding to NT$299 on July 21 and then dipping below NT$200 on Oct. 26. The stock is currently trading at around NT$67.

The Medigen vaccine 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 outstripping supply following the country's first large-scale outbreak in late May.

The EUA was controversial because it had been granted without Phase 3 clinical trials having been conducted.

Instead, the results of the vaccine's Phase 2/3 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 lauded 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.

But the vaccine never really caught on. Of the 5 million doses supplied, 68 percent were used, while the remaining 1.6 million expired and were destroyed, with the government saying Medigen's role had concluded.

(By Fan Cheng-hsiang, Wang Yang-yu, Frances Huang and Chung Yu-chen)

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