Taiwan has rolled out a domestically developed COVID-19 vaccine to the public, with President Tsai Ing-wen receiving her first dose at a Taipei hospital to demonstrate her confidence in the safety of the jab.
Made by Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corp., the vaccine was given emergency approval by regulators in July using a shortcut that prompted fierce opposition from parts of Taiwan’s medical and scientific community.
Tsai, who had held off on taking a vaccine from Moderna or AstraZeneca, the current mainstay of Taiwan’s vaccination programme, received her Medigen shot on Monday.
The president chatted to medical workers as they prepared her shot and answered a simple “No” to a question reporters called out asking if she was nervous. The whole process was broadcast live on her Facebook page.
More than 700,000 people have signed up so far to receive the Medigen vaccine, which requires a second shot 28 days after the first one.
Developed in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health in the US, the Medigen vaccine uses a piece of the coronavirus to teach the body to mount an immune response.
The Taiwanese government has ordered an initial five million doses and says nobody will be forced to get it.
The vaccine has yet to finish its clinical trials and no efficacy data is available but Taiwanese regulators approved the jab after comparing the level of antibodies Medigen was able to generate with that of AstraZeneca, which has been approved by many governments and has undergone the full three stages of clinical trials.
They said the data provided showed that Medigen produced 3.4 times the level of neutralising antibodies as AstraZeneca and said Medigen will be required to submit real-world efficacy data within a year of the approval.
The decision to give approval based on the new standard prompted an expert from the advisory committee on vaccines to resign.
Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang, or KMT, has also mounted a campaign against the shot, with one of its former vice chairmen, Hau Lung-bin, filing a lawsuit to invalidate Medigen’s authorisation, though a court rejected that last week.
The party says it supports domestic vaccines but that 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, the deputy head of the KMT’s international department, told the Reuters news agency.
Medigen, whose Chinese name 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. There are so few side effects, almost no fever and so on. So I think everyone can rest assured,” Medigen’s Chief Executive Officer Charles Chen told Reuters.
As of last Friday, 40 percent of Taiwan’s population of 23 million had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The island’s vaccination policy is to prioritise first shots, with only the most high-risk groups, such as medical workers, initially getting the full two doses.
That represents a huge leap from May when less than 5 percent of the population had received a vaccine.
Taiwan had remained largely free of COVID-19 for a year and a half during the pandemic until an outbreak driven by the Alpha variant spread across the island in May, prompting a large-scale lockdown.
At that point, Taiwan had only received about 700,000 doses of the vaccines it had bought. However, it was able to obtain roughly five million vaccines donated by Japan and the US.