TAIPEI, July 12 (Reuters) - As talks for Taiwan to access
BioNTech SE's COVID-19 vaccine via two major
Taiwanese companies reached a head last week, the German firm's
Chinese sales agent put forward a template contract seeking
access to Taiwanese medical records.
The clause sparked alarm, as such a requirement would be
anathema for Taiwan's government, long wary of Beijing's
attempts at influence over the democratic island, a source with
direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
"The other side did propose such a contract template, which
made negotiators in Taiwan and the Taiwan government feel
puzzled and troubled, but after talks, the other side stopped
insisting and adjusted it in a short time," the source said.
Reuters could not determine why Shanghai Fosun
Pharmaceutical Group Co Ltd sent the template, and
the company did not respond to requests for comment.
But the incident highlights how politics became entangled
with a public health issue, laying bare wider disagreements
between the governments of China and Taiwan.
The BioNTech issue has challenged China's efforts to project
a benign global image through vaccine diplomacy, especially
after Taiwan's direct deal with BioNTech collapsed in January.
Shortly after Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen accused China in
late May of blocking her government's deal with BioNTech, Japan
and the United States announced they would donate millions of
vaccines to the island.
Germany also said it had been helping in Taiwan's talks with
Fosun's contract template, a copy of which was reviewed by
Reuters, stipulated that it or its "authorised representatives"
should have the right to audit the vaccination process,
including checking facilities and reviewing documentation.
It also granted Fosun the right to collect data and
interview vaccine recipients, something more akin to a clinical
trial than a mass vaccination scheme.
Two other sources briefed on the talks said that personal
information was never going to be sent to China, and that the
contract was only a template based on a deal signed with
Chinese-run Hong Kong.
"It was just that - a template" and a starting point for
negotiations, one of the sources said.
On Sunday, Fosun said an agreement had been signed to
provide the vaccines to two Taiwanese tech firms, Foxconn
and TSMC. Taiwan's government allowed them
last month to negotiate on its behalf, after public pressure
about the slow pace of vaccines arriving.
TSMC said the template was not the contract they signed, and
declined to comment further.
A representative for Foxconn's billionaire founder Terry
Gou, who led a high-profile campaign to buy the vaccines and
donate them to Taiwan's government, rejected the idea that the
template was a problem, or that detailed data would have been
sent to China.
Other data, such as reporting on patients who have serious
reactions to vaccine shots, will be closely protected, she said.
"The follow-up information exchange shall comply with Taiwan
regulations, protect privacy, and be used for medical purposes,"
Amanda Liu told Reuters.
China's Taiwan Affairs Office referred Reuters to a faxed
statement on June 23 in which it denied seeking to block Taiwan
from getting vaccines from overseas.
It said Taiwan's government "on the one hand refuses
mainland vaccines and on the other blames it for the lack of
vaccines on the island".
BioNTech did not respond to questions about the template
contract. Taiwan's Presidential Office did not immediately
respond to a request for comment.
China's government had said repeatedly that if Taiwan wanted
the BioNTech vaccine it had to do it through Fosun.
Chinese state media has also relentlessly focused on how bad
the pandemic was in Taiwan, though even the latest outbreak was
relatively small and is now well under control.
The drama has fascinated Taiwan's public and led news
coverage for weeks, even as other vaccines directly purchased by
the government from AstraZeneca and Moderna
One Taiwan-based official familiar with the vaccine talks
said Taiwan arguably did not need vaccine deliveries as urgently
as countries such as Indonesia and Thailand, where the virus is
Moreover, he said, Taiwan's accusations that China earlier
obstructed the BioNTech shots worked in Taipei's favour because
it prompted Washington and Tokyo into action.
"This was always a political not a health issue," he said.
(Reporting by Yimou Lee and Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting
by Beijing newsroom. Editing by Gerry Doyle)