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Taiwan acknowledges room to improve in COVID-19 response

FILE - People wear face masks to help protect against the spread of the coronavirus in Taipei, Taiwan, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. The task force in cha...

FILE - People wear face masks to help protect against the spread of the coronavirus in Taipei, Taiwan, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. The task force in cha...

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — The task force in charge of Taiwan's COVID-19 response has acknowledged that the island could have done better in fighting the disease, after 12 families that lost relatives to the pandemic filed a claim seeking financial compensation from the government.

The families allege that the authorities were underprepared despite having more than a year during which there were few cases, resulting in unnecessary deaths and suffering.

Taiwan managed to largely keep out the coronavirus for nearly a year and a half, with 1,199 cases and 12 deaths as of May 10. The virus then swept through the island, powered by the contagious alpha variant, and Taiwan has now recorded 16,516 cases and 848 deaths.

Asked about the families' claim, the Central Epidemic Command Center said the island's initial success in keeping the virus out resulted in it not having enough COVID-19 tests to detect it.

“Taiwan was effective in sealing its borders, but there is still space for improvement in its defenses within its borders,” it said in a statement provided to The Associated Press. “Because the past pandemic control measures were appropriate, there was no need for large-scale COVID-19 tests, and because of this the surveillance system was not able to uncover asymptomatic carriers. In addition, the public’s willingness to get vaccinated was low.”

Lawyers representing the families presented a request for a national compensation case last week to both the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which oversees the Central Epidemic Control Center, and the Executive Yuan, Taiwan's Cabinet.

A statement from the Executive Yuan on Thursday expressed compassion, but did not take a position on compensation.

“The government expresses our sympathy for the families' deaths, and as for the legal process of seeking compensation, the Executive Yuan respects their request and will require the responsible authorities to follow the law and provide help accordingly,” it said.

Family members say that at the height of the outbreak, their loved ones did not have access to drugs such as the antibody treatments that are widely used in the U.S. and elsewhere to prevent cases from becoming more serious.

When the outbreak was at its peak in mid-May, the island had no antibody treatments and only 1,800 units of Remdesivir, an antiviral drug, the Central Epidemic Control Center said. Both are used to treat COVID-19.

Still, it defended its response for the most part, saying it had put many controls in place. “We were able to suppress large-scale community spread and speed up the procurement of vaccines and vaccinations,” it said.

The task force did not respond when asked whether it had decided to buy antibody medications before the May outbreak.

The families also said that drugs such as Remdesivir were restricted from wide use and doctors had to apply for permission from central health authorities to use it.

The epidemic control center said it looked at which drugs in 10 of the most developed countries had received emergency-use approval — including U.S. government guidelines, expert opinions and research data — before adding antibody treatments to their treatment guidelines for doctors in early June.

The U.S. FDA approved emergency use of one antibody treatment in November 2020 and another in February of this year.

Taiwan is now recording new daily cases in single digits and has on hand enough Remdesivir to treat about 11,000 patients and antibody treatments for 4,700 people.