TAIPEI (Reuters) – BioNTech SE had planned to send Taiwan five million COVID-19 vaccine doses by July under an original deal which collapsed in January, Taipei’s top diplomat in Berlin said on Tuesday, detailing how the highly politicised agreement came apart.
Taiwan had tried for months to get the vaccine from the German company, until on Sunday BioNTech’s Chinese sales agent, which also has the right to sell the shot to the island, said it would sell 10 million doses to two Taiwanese tech giants, after Taiwan’s government said they could negotiate on their behalf.
Taiwan has blamed China for the collapse of a direct deal with BioNTech in January, allegations Beijing strongly denies.
Shieh Jhy-wey, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Berlin, said the original English language press release which was meant to have announced the agreement on Jan. 6 mentioned five million doses would have been supplied in batches by July.
But two days later, on Jan. 8, Shieh said a different person at BioNTech than they had previously been communicating with began returning messages.
“The English was mixed with simplified Chinese characters to request ‘our country’ be changed to ‘Taiwan’, and from then on it all came crumbling down,” he added, writing on his Facebook page and referring to the draft press release.
Simplified characters are used in China, whereas Taiwan uses traditional characters. China claims Taiwan as its own territory and strongly objects to any wording that implies the island is a country.
Responding to questions about Shieh’s comments, BioNTech said they generally do not comment on contract details and discussions.
“It goes without saying that it is BioNTech’s goal to provide access to a well-tolerated and effective vaccine to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.”
Taiwan Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said in May, when the government first gave details of what had happened, that they had agreed to change the wording to just “Taiwan”, but it was from that point on the agreement stalled.
Shieh said his description of what had happened “was of course ‘political interference'”.
“Yet who? It goes without saying,” he added.
“However, during the whole process of coordination and negotiation behind the scenes, not only me, but also members of parliament and German officials strongly felt the high willingness and enthusiasm of BioNTech’s top management to supply Taiwan with vaccines.”
Germany, like most countries, has no official diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Louise Heavens)