Taiwan’s government has been lauded for its swift and effective pandemic response. The democratic island nation of 24 million people has reported 942 cases to date, including nine deaths, since the beginning of the outbreak.
More than a year on from its first confirmed case on January 21, 2020—a resident who had returned from Wuhan the day before—the conversation has now shifted to any upcoming immunization program.
The administration of President Tsai Ing-wen has managed to secure 20 million vaccines, with another 25 doses in the pipeline, the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control has said. Around 20 million units in the second batch are expected to be domestically produced.
Health officials say the first jabs could be administered next month, but the majority of participants in a recent poll on the subject felt the government could do more to address unease surrounding the use of COVID-19 vaccines.
A survey published Tuesday by Taiwanese magazine Global Views Monthly (GVM) showed 60.3 percent of respondents were willing to accept a vaccine if offered one by the government. Among them, the age group 18 to 29 returned the highest rate—65.3 percent—while nearly 80 percent of those working in public transport wanted to be inoculated.
Some 92.2 percent were in favor of priority status for health workers, civil servants and those in high-risk groups, an accompanying report said.
Men were nearly 10 percentage points more likely to accept a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the results, but more than one-third of respondents said they would not accept the jab, and roughly the same amount expressed no confidence in its safety.
When asked to choose their preferred manufacturing origin, 54.8 percent of participants said they would take a vaccine developed in Taiwan. That number rose to 72.7 percent among respondents aged between 18 and 29. However, 31.8 percent would still opt for a dose from the U.S. or Europe.
Notably, only 1.3 percent of respondents said they would accept a Chinese-made vaccine, returning the lowest rate of confidence among the options offered in the poll. GVM cited the recent revelation of China’s fake COVID-19 vaccine ring as a contributing factor.
Extrapolated to Taiwan’s population, it would mean a take-up of just over 300,000 people.
The strikingly low figure showed a deep distrust of products made in China, which is a consequence of several food and health scandals, said Brian Hioe, the Taipei-based founding editor of online magazine New Bloom.
“People in Taiwan are aware the Chinese government tried to cover up things in the beginning of the pandemic. They’re aware of the faking of statistics in China,” he told Newsweek.
Taiwan’s skepticism of Chinese vaccines is also reflected in its government, which says it has no plans to procure doses from Beijing.
Amid criticism of Taiwan’s relatively slow immunization program and the Tsai administration’s failure to secure more jabs, health minister Chen Shih-chung has been pressed to justify Taipei’s refusal to import vaccines made in China.
Chen has not ruled out ever using Chinese-made vaccines as an emergency measure but expressed the Taiwanese government’s concerns over transparency.
China’s three vaccines, which are still awaiting approval by the World Health Organization-backed COVAX initiative, lacked “technical data,” he has said.
At a daily Taiwan CDC press briefing last week, Chen also raised questions about the population’s demand for China’s jabs, saying: “I don’t know how many people [in Taiwan] actually want to use [Chinese vaccines].”
Despite its successes in pandemic management so far, the Tsai administration has had to field criticism for its slower vaccine roll-out from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, which includes former president Ma Ying-jeou.
Ma has accused Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of politicizing the country’s inoculation program—a charge also leveled against her by Beijing.
“This is an issue the KMT is starting to amplify. The way that it’s being framed is that the Tsai administration is irrationally hostile toward the idea of Chinese vaccines, that this is a form of vaccine nationalism,” said New Bloom’s Hioe.
He noted: “This is also taking place at the same time as a disinformation push by the Chinese government to discredit Western vaccines as dangerous or unsafe, also to diminish their efficacy, because most testing shows that the Chinese-produced vaccines have lower efficacy than Western-produced vaccines.
“This disinformation is trying to cover up the lower efficacy of Chinese vaccines. One can see how these two things are dovetailing together.”
The Chinese government insists its vaccines are safe to use. Last week, Beijing offered 10 million doses to COVAX and gave priority status to Taiwanese who wish to receive a jab in China.
While the rate of uptake is unknown, the Taiwanese government has discouraged its citizens from accepting the offer, saying it would not affect the island’s quarantine requirements or existing health measures.
“The Chinese government is trying to amplify this narrative that its vaccines are better or safer,” Hioe continued. “In the meantime, the KMT is criticizing the Tsai administration for delays in terms of vaccine acquisition, and saying that because of these delays, Taiwan should be using Chinese vaccines.”
Wednesday’s GVM poll showed a notably lower vaccine acceptance rate compared to the global average of 74 percent.
This, according to Hioe’s analysis, could speak more to Taiwan’s successful management of the outbreak than to wider vaccine hesitancy.
He said: “I think Taiwan has been so insulated from the effects of COVID-19, people are not really in a rush to get vaccines. The pandemic has pushed Taiwan toward greater confidence in itself.”
At the first sign of a coronavirus outbreak, Taiwan—isolated from the global health community at large—preempted WHO guidance and rolled out a series of measures to ensure the disease would not run rampant among its population and stall its economy.
On Saturday, Taiwan’s statistics bureau forecast gross domestic product growth of 4.64 percent in 2021.
Taipei’s response has led many, including in the United States, to argue for Taiwan’s inclusion in the United Nations‘ top health body.
However, as Taiwan begins to vaccinate its population, the government will need to address lingering doubts over the safety of vaccines, said 56.8 percent of GVM‘s respondents.
More than 55 percent of those unlikely to take the vaccine were above the age of 50, the survey showed. A majority would still turn down the jab even if stage-one immunization resulted in no side effects, and nearly 50 percent said they would still refuse even if the vaccine proved to be the best way to combat the disease.
GVM‘s poll was conducted telephonically between February 4 and 7, returning 1,145 valid questionnaires from participants above the age of 18.