Key Apple supplier Foxconn and other big Taiwanese tech companies are attempting to purchase COVID-19 vaccines in a bid to keep business running smoothly amid a recent spike in coronavirus infections.
Foxconn is in talks with a number of vaccine makers to procure doses, multiple sources told Nikkei Asia, while executives at other companies are considering banding together to buy surplus doses from overseas.
Foxconn had earlier approached Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group, the sales arm of BioNTech-Pfizer, as first reported by Taiwan’s Storm Media, but has not proceeded with that plan, the sources said.
Meanwhile, top executives from at least four other major Taiwanese tech companies have been using their personal connections in an attempt to buy millions of doses from vaccine makers or agents outside of Taiwan who have a surplus, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter. The plan is to donate a majority of jabs to the administration, while saving some to inoculate their employees and those of suppliers, they said.
The island has been hailed as a success in containing the pandemic over the past year but is now facing a severe shortage of vaccines. As of Wednesday, only 1.3% of Taiwan’s population of 23.5 million had received their first dose of a vaccine.
“The plan is to reserve about 10% of vaccines that are purchased for internal use and donate 90% to the administration to help solve the problem as early as possible,” a tech executive with direct knowledge told Nikkei Asia. “However, there are still regulatory hurdles, as vaccines are vital medical supplies and need to be approved by the administration.”
Another industry executive said their company would also offer vaccines “to our suppliers in Taiwan if we successfully acquire them with the administration’s authorization.”
Some executives are also discussing a plan to band together and buy vaccines as a group.
“Some Apple suppliers’ bosses are using their personal connections to see if they could acquire the vaccines as soon as possible,” a third industry source said. “But they also understand that they could not buy them just for their own companies because that could cause a backlash from their competitors, the administration, and even the general public. They think that buying together may be the best solution.”
The source added that all tech suppliers are extremely concerned about the rise in COVID cases potentially affecting production and research and development plans. As Asia’s key tech hub, Taiwan is one of the world’s most important sources of advanced semiconductors and components used in cars, smartphones, PCs, and servers.
“For any information regarding the pandemic or vaccines, please refer to the [Central Epidemic Command Center]. If Foxconn can contribute to Taiwan in terms of COVID prevention, the company will do its best to help,” Foxconn said in response to Nikkei Asia‘s request for comment.
Sources say some companies began considering plans to purchase vaccines months ago. Their efforts are becoming more urgent as case numbers rise. Taiwan reported more than 4,000 locally transmitted cases and 34 deaths in less than two weeks in May.
So far Taiwan has received only three batches of AstraZeneca vaccines totaling slightly more than 720,000 doses, through COVAX, the global vaccine initiative, since mid-March. It is not clear yet whether the administration will allow companies such as Foxconn to purchase vaccines themselves.
Taiwan health head Chen Shih-chung on Wednesday said another 2 million COVID vaccines are scheduled to arrive in June, but he declined to disclose the maker for fear of political interference.
Chen said that by the end of August, 10 million doses of COVID vaccines will have been made available. That includes homegrown jabs that are not expected to be available until the end of July at the earliest. Currently, two out of the three domestic vaccine makers have begun Phase 2 clinical trials.
“If you want to import vaccines you need to go through a formal application process, which is very strict and cautious for medicines,” Chen said. “The imports of vaccines need to go through a normal channel and be reviewed by the country’s Food and Drug Administration before entering into Taiwan. … Also, after the vaccines are imported, it will be for the central administration to distribute them.”
Tsai Ing-wen said the purchase of COVID vaccines should be handled by the central administration in accordance with the administration’s coronavirus prevention measures, in part to ensure fairness in vaccine distribution. Tsai said the administration has purchased 30 million foreign and domestic vaccines, but did not say when those vaccines will be fully available.
Taiwan has been under a level 3 COVID warning—one step below a de facto lockdown—since May 19 and will remain so until at least June 14. Schools are closed at least until the middle of June, public places like libraries, parks, and theaters are closed, and restaurants and juice bars allow only takeout or deliveries.
Other businesses, however, especially in the manufacturing sector, remain open to minimize the economic impact of the outbreak.
The wave of infections has not yet affected factory operations in Taiwan, although a growing number of tech companies have reported sporadic cases of employees contracting the virus. These include the world’s largest contract chipmaker, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.; MacBook maker Quanta Computer; iPad and Dell notebook maker Compal Electronics; chipmaker Vanguard International Semiconductor and the local production site of US chip company Micron.
Meanwhile, there is frustration with the slow pace of vaccination.
“Taiwan’s major economic partners like the US are gradually reopening after so many people [have been] vaccinated, while we are closing our doors as people suffer from the spread of the virus,” one executive who participated in the negotiations to buy foreign vaccines told Nikkei Asia.
“We don’t have three months or six months to wait for vaccines,” the executive said. “Taiwan’s economy is forecast to grow by more than 5% this year. If that shrinks to 3% because the shortage of vaccines means businesses cannot open up, the economic cost will be much greater than the expense of vaccines.”