The Politics Behind Vaccination Program / Vaccines from Japan reached Taiwan in double-quick time

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An artist illustration: Key developments of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine

In late May, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe received an urgent call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.

“Is there any way you could get vaccines delivered [to Taiwan] by the middle of June?” Tsai asked.

Taiwan’s containment of the novel coronavirus initially had been a success story. Former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar even gushed that “Taiwan is a model for the world.” However, new infections surged in May. The Taiwan president’s office scrambled to secure vaccines, but a contract with German drugmaker BioNTech SE could not be completed “because of China’s intervention,” Tsai said.

This prompted Tsai, Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and other top officials including Frank Hsieh Chang-ting, head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Japan (Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Japan), to ramp up efforts to lean on Japanese political figures known to be friendly toward the island.

Taiwan’s pro-Japan stance has stood out in international circles, as evidenced by the massive donations given after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and its swift provision of masks and protective gear to Japan during the coronavirus pandemic. Support for helping Taiwan in this time of need quickly spread through political circles, and the Japanese government started to get the ball rolling.

The vaccine made by British drugmaker AstraZeneca PLC was soon singled out as the best option to give to Taiwan. In August 2020, AstraZeneca agreed to supply 120 million doses to Japan. Government approval to manufacture and sell the vaccine in Japan was granted in May 2021, and domestic production has started. However, Japan also has secured vaccines from U.S. companies Pfizer Inc. and Moderna, Inc. Overseas reports have highlighted very rare cases of blood clots forming in people who have received the AstraZeneca jab, so just how this vaccine would be used in Japan remained undecided.

On May 24, Liberal Democratic Party House of Representatives lawmaker Kentaro Sonoura was invited to Hsieh’s official residence, where they had a meal with Joseph Young, charge d’affaires ad interim of the U.S. Embassy. Young reportedly nodded in satisfied approval when Sonoura, who was a special adviser to the prime minister during the Abe administration and is close to Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, explained the plan to supply AstraZeneca vaccines to Taiwan.

This “Japan-Taiwan cooperation” on vaccines was a move that would be welcomed by the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, which is taking a stronger line toward China.

Taking direct route

LDP lower house lawmaker Keiji Furuya, who heads a nonpartisan group of Japanese lawmakers who favor improving ties with Taiwan, said: “True friends help each other when they are in trouble. Everyone shared a desire to return the favor [to Taiwan].”

However, two hurdles needed to be cleared before the plan to provide the vaccines could get off the drawing board and be translated into action.

The first problem was finding a route for delivering the vaccines. The Foreign Ministry initially pushed for using COVAX, an international framework for the joint purchase and equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines. This option had the advantages of erasing concerns the Chinese government might butt in to derail closer Tokyo-Taipei ties, and of highlighting the fact this was a contribution to the international community. The flip side was that COVAX prioritizes the distribution of vaccines to developing nations, so there was no guarantee the vaccines would quickly reach Taiwan.

The matter was settled at a meeting of relevant Cabinet ministers at the Prime Minister’s Office, which was attended by Aso and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi — both of whom are friendly toward Taiwan. In the end, the ministers adopted a proposal put forward by Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato to send the vaccines directly to Taiwan. Kato reportedly told his aides: “If we take the COVAX route, Japan’s contribution will be swallowed up by the others and become just ‘one of them.’ There was concern we could squander this opportunity.”

The Japanese government’s other headache came from restrictions outlined in the contract it signed with AstraZeneca. This contract did not envisage that Japan would send these vaccines overseas.

If severe adverse effects emerge in people who received the AstraZeneca shot in Japan, the government will shoulder that company’s responsibility for the problem. But how would an unexpected situation involving vaccines sent to Taiwan be handled? Ultimately, AstraZeneca agreed to assume responsibility as a special case given that Taiwan had inked a supply contract with the company, and that the vaccines dispatched from Japan were humanitarian aid provided free of charge.

As the wheels turned on procedures for granting permission to provide the vaccines, the government quietly sent 1.24 million vaccine doses freshly made in Japan to a warehouse at Narita Airport. This would enable the vaccines to be delivered to Taiwan as soon as the shipment got the green light.

On the afternoon of June 4, a Japan Airlines plane carrying the vaccines came into view above Taoyuan International Airport, just outside Taipei. “We Taiwanese thank you for your great help,” the air traffic controller, speaking in English, told the pilots. “You are welcome,” the aircraft captain replied. Taiwan’s media outlets gave this event blanket coverage.

The welcoming mood continued into the evening, when messages in Chinese and Japanese extolling Japan-Taiwan ties and thanks were lit up on the Taipei 101 skyscraper’s exterior. Although production of the AstraZeneca vaccine will start in Taiwan in July, the supply sent by Japan will be a massive help in enabling vaccinations to go ahead until then.

The supply of made-in-Japan vaccines touched down in Taiwan about two weeks after the first request came through. The U.S. government reportedly commended Japan’s vaccine diplomacy, which had been patchy and invited delays in domestic vaccinations, as having finally functioned properly.

A senior Foreign Ministry official also was pleased with how the situation had turned out. “As a result of diversifying our vaccine supplies, we were helped by the excess that was unexpectedly produced,” the official told The Yomiuri Shimbun. “This reminded us of the strategic value vaccines can have.”