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Taiwanese Health Official Warns Against Reliance on Coronavirus Vaccines

A staff member, wearing a protective mask amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, cleans at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport in Taoyuan, Taiwan, Jan. 7, 2021.
A staff member, wearing a protective mask amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, cleans at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport in Taoyuan, Taiwan, Jan. 7, 2021.

The Taiwanese health official credited with leading one of the world's most successful COVID-19 control efforts is warning people globally to keep up their guard against coronavirus even as vaccines emerge.

Governments will face challenges in distributing vaccine shots to their populations, leading to an “imbalance” between those who are protected and those still at risk, Taiwan Health Minister Chen Shih-chung told VOA on Monday. Coronavirus caseloads worldwide have not yet reached their all-time peak, he added.

Chen’s government has kept the Taiwan COVID-19 caseload at just 838 across a population of nearly 24 million, among the populous world’s lowest rates, due to strict quarantine rules and tracing of sick people’s contacts.

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“What I’m afraid of is once the vaccines come out, everyone will rush to open things up and common people will say 'that because there’s protection,' they’ll become more proactive about being open,” said Chen, adding that this scenario could tempt people to resume large gatherings and abandon facemasks.

“Because of expectations that vaccines will bring about a relief in terms of epidemic control — based on thinking a vaccine’s here, we can get the shot now — then they won’t follow the basic measures,” he added.

While every country and region operate differently, Chen said, he advises broadly that people not “let down their guard.”

Nearly two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been secured for equitable distribution in 2021 to the 190 countries that have signed on to a World Health Organization-led partnership, and at least 1.3 billion doses will be set aside for low- and middle-income countries.

Still, Chen said, not everyone will get vaccinated right away, and some vaccines might not work. He added that Taiwan won’t accept any Chinese vaccines due to what he described as China's history of flawed vaccines.

A March 2019 article in The Lancet medical journal described instances of defective rabies and diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus vaccines going undetected for two years by China's Food and Drug Administration. The New York Times in September reported that China was attempting mass inoculations with unproven vaccines that remained in phase 3 clinical trials outside of the country.

Vigilance against COVID-19 despite vaccines also wards off other diseases, the health minister said.

The flu killed no one in Taiwan over the final two months of 2020 when most people were wearing masks, down from 87 deaths from the flu in the same period of 2019, he said. Enterovirus cases dropped, too, added Chen, who plans to recommend continued facemask use in Taiwan after Covid-19 outbreaks ease.

“Putting on a facemask isn’t that hard, especially in the winter when it’s cold outside anyway,” he said. “It’s useful for stopping Covid-19 as well as other respiratory diseases.”

Control over COVID-19 at home won't open a door to Taipei’s long-sought participation in the World Health Organization, from which it is barred by political rival China and its allies. But Chao Chien-min, dean of social sciences at Chinese Culture University in the capital, says it has given the island a welcome glow overseas.

“I think Taiwan’s role has been big and its volume loud throughout this COVID-19 incident period, and whether in the WHO or in whatever forum, Taiwan’s epidemic control success will be mentioned," Chao said. "So for Taiwan, there’s that effect.”

But an infected airline pilot and two coronavirus cases in a Taiwan hospital since Dec. 22 have put Taiwan on high alert. Migrant workers coming in from infected countries such as Indonesia may carry the virus too, said Wu Chia-yi, associate professor in the National Taiwan University College of Medicine’s nursing faculty.

“Because we import Indonesian labor, I think this group of people in Taiwan is a potential risk and a high risk," Wu said. "So if you ask me whether Taiwan has future risk, I think we still have potential risk of outbreak from the imported cases.”