KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) – In the United Kingdom, it was Margaret Keenan who was the historic "patient one" to get the first official COVID-19 vaccination, closely followed by William Shakespeare (not that one). Here in Taiwan, "patient one" was President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).
She was certainly not the first Taiwan citizen to get inoculated. Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) announced earlier this week that more than 40% of the population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
However, she was the first member of the public to receive the Medigen vaccine, Taiwan’s domestically produced vaccine. And make no mistake, domestic vaccines are going to be a game changer for Taiwan in the fight against COVID-19, in more ways than one.
Irrespective of what the deluded vaccine deniers might claim, the blunt truth is that vaccines are the only way that the world is going to get out of the mess that China has put us all in with COVID-19.
Up until April, the policies of the Tsai administration had kept the worst effects of the pandemic at bay. But once COVID-19 did break through, Taiwan found itself in a perfect storm.
Domestic complacency helped the spread while low case numbers in comparison to many other countries meant that Taiwan was not a priority for vaccine exports. Throw in the complications created by China’s false sovereignty claims, flagrant vaccine diplomacy, plus the wave of pro-China fake news, and there was a spell when the Tsai government had its back against the wall.
This has eased thanks to the support of friendly nations like the U.S., Japan, and Lithuania, who have donated vaccines and helped Taiwan progress its vaccination program as far as it has. However, it is the domestic vaccine, Medigen, that is a real game changer.
Being able to manufacture a vaccine at home means that Taiwan will no longer have to navigate the roadblocks that China tries to throw in its path. It will now be able to manufacture enough vaccines to inoculate the rest of its population, even if not one more vial of Moderna or Pfizer ever reaches these shores.
The road to herd immunity will not be totally smooth. There has been criticism that Medigen has only been given emergency approval and is not far enough along its development to be rolled out.
But Pfizer, AZ, and Moderna were also only given emergency approval for use in many countries and none will have completed their safety monitoring process until 2022, at the earliest. But only the most extreme anti-vaxxers would argue the benefits of rolling them out now don't greatly outweigh any risks.
These are exceptional times and the benefits that these vaccines offer far outweigh the minimal risks they pose. This can be seen in the case data of countries like the U.K., where an advanced vaccination program has seen case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths drop dramatically despite the more contagious delta variant running riot there.
All vaccines come with side effects. The company behind the Medigen vaccine has been open about this in exactly the same way as AZ, Pfizer, and Moderna. So far the impact on people receiving Medigen has been absolutely minimal.
Indeed, most people receiving Medigen, including President Tsai, have reported they could barely even feel the jab.
It will inevitably take time for trust in Medigen to grow but a survey this week found that Medigen was already the third most popular vaccine in Taiwan — so things look positive.
As more people take it, faith in Medigen will continue to rise, as has been seen with the AZ jab. Once the initial hysteria died down and the fake news about AZ abated, there were plenty of people willing to take it.
There will be some more bumps in the road. A few people may get more severe side effects and doubtless the hysterical Mandarin-language media will leap on that.
I believe by this time next year, we will all be grateful for Medigen and many of us will have one or two shots of it in our arms. Other domestically developed vaccines, including the exciting development of a possible nasal spray vaccine could also be in common usage too.
As well as helping bring things back to normal at home, Medigen and other domestic vaccines will have significant potential international benefits too.
Having domestically developed and effective COVID-19 vaccines will be a powerful soft-power tool, as well as a useful export commodity. Experts are united in their belief that COVID-19 is here to stay and vaccines are the key tool as we learn to live with it.
Taiwan can therefore share Medigen and other homemade vaccines with its diplomatic allies and other friendly nations who have helped us out in our hour of need. Unlike the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Taiwan will handle such vaccine diplomacy in a friendly manner, and will, of course, be helped by having a vaccine that actually works.
It might even help to tempt some nations to reconsider their relationship with the CCP altogether. Any way you look at it, the launch of Medigen is a great day for Taiwan.
It will take some time, but eventually, Taiwan and the wider world will feel the benefits of having a domestically manufactured vaccine that can be relied upon.