TAIPEI - Taiwan directly accused China for the first time on Wednesday of blocking a deal with Germany's BioNTech SE for COVID-19 vaccines, in an escalating war of words after Beijing offered the shots to the island via a Chinese company.
Taiwan has millions of shots on order, from AstraZeneca Plc and Moderna Inc, but has received only slightly more than 700,000 to date, and has only been able to vaccinate about 1% of its population as cases surge.
While Taiwan has previously said it had been unable to sign a final contract with BioNTech, it had only implied that Chinese pressure was to blame.
China claims Taiwan as its own territory and frequently puts pressure on countries and firms to curtail their dealings with the island.
In comments at a meeting of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party, President Tsai Ing-wen said orders for the AstraZeneca and Moderna shots had been "smoothly" booked.
"As for Germany's BioNTech, we were close to completing the contract with the original German plant, but because of China's intervention, up to now there's been no way to complete it," she said.
Taiwan, which has a population of more than 23 million people, had bought nearly 30 million shots, Tsai said, without giving details.
BioNTech declined to comment on Tsai's remarks, but added "we are supportive of global vaccine supply".
China has denied trying to block vaccines for Taiwan and has offered to provide them itself to the island as a gesture of goodwill.
China's Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co Ltd said on Saturday it was willing to provide Taiwan with BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines.
Fosun signed a deal with BioNTech to exclusively develop and commercialize COVID-19 vaccine products developed using BioNTech's mRNA technology in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
But Tsai said the island would only buy directly from the original manufacturers, or discus purchases with them via the COVAX global vaccine sharing scheme.
"Only by negotiating with the original manufacturer can you obtain the original manufacturer's direct guarantee and responsibility for quality and safety, so as to avoid legal and political risks," she said.
Fosun has not responded to several requests for comment.
China's foreign ministry said Taiwan's channels to receive vaccines from them were "smooth", while China's Taiwan Affairs Office said Taipei was using excuses to stop the shots.
China was "happy to see" Fosun's willingness to provide vaccines to Taiwan, the Chinese office added.
With supplies tight, several Taiwan politicians have said the need for the Fosun shots was so urgent the government should immediately bring them in.
But Taiwan's Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said at a daily news briefing they had seen no supporting documentation about the vaccine Fosun was offering.
"Bring out the official documents and we can talk about it again." (Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee; Editing by Christopher Cushing, Robert Birsel)