After almost 18 months of successful prevention efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus found a way through Taiwanese defenses. The government is channeling all its resources to contain the outbreak, which has dramatically increased the number of victims, and to import as many vaccines as possible to inoculate its population.
The government began vaccinating Taiwanese at the end of March using the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, with the first batch of Moderna COVID-19 shots arriving in Taiwan last month. The vaccination campaign is expected to intensify later this month, when, according to Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), at least 2 million more doses will arrive to help Taiwan reach its herd immunity goal.
Another reason to be hopeful is that two Taiwanese pharmaceutical developers — Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corp and United Biomedical — earlier this year began phase 2 clinical trials of locally made COVID-19 vaccines. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) expects distribution of their products to begin by the end of next month.
The prospect of receiving a locally manufactured vaccine is something that many Taiwanese and foreign residents are looking forward to, especially as these inoculations are reported to be effective against COVID-19 variants originating from the UK and South Africa.
Regardless, it is essential that we keep in mind that the best vaccine is the one that is available to you first.
It seems like a given that people would want to be vaccinated as soon as possible, regardless of which vaccine is available to them, but local media reports of rare side effects, including blood clots, prevented many people in the eligible population from getting inoculated during Taiwan’s first round of vaccinations.
The low level of interest in the AstraZeneca vaccine was evident in the concerns of unused doses going to waste, prompting the government to launch a self-paid program that did not gain much traction.
Another possible reason for the AstraZeneca vaccine’s poor welcome in Taiwan might have been the efficacy rate of the clinical trials conducted prior to its approval. The brand reported 67 percent efficacy 15 days after its second dose.
That number might not seem too high when compared with 95 percent of the Pfizer COVID-19 shot or Moderna’s 94 percent, but before jumping to conclusions, it is crucial to understand that the efficacy rate is not the most important measure of how well a vaccine works. Rather, it is a reflection of the specific clinical trial that took place during its approval process.
In simple terms, clinical trials are conducted in different countries, at different times and under different circumstances, which all have an effect on the final result, making it difficult to fairly compare the results of one specific vaccine with the other.
Moderna and Pfizer clinical trials were conducted either completely or primarily in the US, starting around summer last year.
AstraZeneca’s trials, on the other hand, were conducted in the UK, Brazil and South Africa, a factor that might have played an important role in the results, considering that two of the new and more contagious strains came from those countries.
This is not to say that the numbers are not to be trusted, but it is important to remember that the results of the clinical trials might not be replicated in their entirety when the vaccination is carried out in a different region and under different conditions.
Another important factor to consider is that vaccines have more than one objective. While one is to prevent an infection from the virus, another is to train our defenses in the event that COVID-19 penetrates our bodies. This way, we can prevent the virus from causing strong symptoms, which minimizes the risk of hospitalization and, of course, the risk of death.
This is why looking only at the efficacy rate of a vaccine when deciding to take it is a mistake that can have fatal consequences. All vaccines that have undergone phase 3 clinical trials have demonstrated the protection that they can offer against severe infections, and that includes the AstraZeneca and vaccine and the Moderna shot to be available in Taiwan.
It is essential for us to remove the stigma that the AstraZeneca vaccine carries with it, not only because Taiwan has begun distributing the 400,000 doses it received last month, but because among the 20 million vaccines that Taiwan has secured and is expecting to receive in the coming months, about half are from this brand. These are vital to achieving herd immunity.
Also, we must consider that both shipments Taiwan has received through the COVAX program have been AstraZeneca vaccines as well, so the final number will likely be much higher.
Additionally, the Japanese government has just donated 1.24 million AstraZeneca doses to Taiwan, and is considering donating further doses to other countries in the Pacific region which are set to expire in September.
This donation comes as a result of the successful “Taiwan can help” campaign. The head of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party’s policy group, Masahito Sato, mentioned the 2 million masks that Taiwan donated to Japan in its time of crisis when explaining the rationale for quickly providing vaccines to Taiwanese.
Japan is not the only foreign government trying to secure more AstraZeneca vaccines for Taiwan.
US Representative Ted Lieu (劉雲平) told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the US should let Taiwan use some of its excess COVID-19 vaccine doses to contain the local case surge before it becomes a crisis.
It is paramount that the public understands that blood clots occuring after the AstraZeneca vaccines were administered have not killed anyone in Taiwan, while the outbreak has.
As members of this society, we need to realize that with a death toll in the hundreds, there should be no waiting for a “better” brand to come along. While we hesitate, the virus will continue to spread, taking many lives during the process.
We must be ready to fulfill our part to put this outbreak behind us, and be completely confident that any vaccine that the government can secure, and which we can get into our arms, will put us one step closer to eradicating this virus once and for all, regardless of which brand’s label is on the package.
Fernando Herrera Ramos is a Honduran lawyer residing in Taiwan. He has a master’s degree in business administration.
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