The Cultural Politics of Medigen

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Bicanski/Pixnio

IN RETROSPECT, it was probably inevitable that Taiwan’s domestically developed and manufactured vaccine, Medigen, would encounter difficulties in public reception. 

Taiwan embraced Medigen because of the insufficient supply of vaccines from international brands. While Taiwan made enough purchases to vaccinate its population, these shipments have experienced delays in arriving, despite Taiwan’s wealth compared to other nations and centrality to global supply chains. 

In particular, the push for use of Medigen was accomplished by speeding up the normal vaccine development process. This included skipping phase three testing in a process known as immuno-bridging, making Taiwan the first country in the world to attempt this. Likewise, even without proven results, preparations were made to begin the manufacturing process for both Medigen and fellow domestic vaccine manufacturer United Biomedical’s vaccine, with the government stating that it would provide compensation if vaccine efficacy was insufficient, leading the vaccines not to be suitable for use. This was more or less the same process used by the US and other countries for COVID-19 vaccines, as part of Operation Warp Speed and similar efforts. 

That being said, Taiwan has been plagued by disinformation about vaccines from the beginning. Before the start of the present outbreak, vaccination was slow because of media reports playing up fears about blood clots after AstraZeneca vaccination, with Taiwanese media reproducing misleading reports from abroad that claimed that AstraZeneca could cause blood clots. This took place at a time in which Taiwan only had AstraZeneca vaccines available.

Later on, the media began to report on sudden deaths after vaccination as though they were caused by vaccines. Medical authorities sought to emphasize that these deaths took place because vaccination began with the elderly, a group that already had higher odds of dying. Deaths, after vaccination were primarily of elderly individuals with long-term conditions and the, were consistent with the normal daily death rate for the elderly, but media scarcely reported on events as though this were the case, instead oftentimes linking deaths that were clearly of other causes to vaccination with AstraZeneca or other vaccine brands. 

Photo credit: Bicanski/Pixnio

In this way, it has been a struggle convincing the Taiwanese public to get vaccinated. But fears regarding Medigen are likely to be higher than for other vaccines, given that it is domestically manufactured. Due to Taiwan’s exclusion from the international community, as well as most international organizations, cultural attitudes in Taiwan valuate what is foreign or international as superior, regardless of whether this is the case or not.

One has observed this quite clearly during the present COVID-19 outbreak, with Taiwan’s response compared to countries clearing faring worse than Taiwan—such as the US—by politicians such as Ko Wen-je and others. With such comparisons, Taiwan was framed as having the worse COVID response simply by virtue of inherent western superiority, even with this was clearly the opposite—Taiwan’s current outbreak only took place after a year in which Taiwan was one of the few places in the world to be COVID-free and was still contained relatively quickly. 

The pan-Blue camp also made efforts to frame all vaccines outside of BioNTech as dangerous and then sought to take credit for facilitating BioNTech vaccine purchases—even when non-government groups such as FoxConn, TSMC, or Tzu Chi could have not facilitated vaccine purchases on their own without approval from the government, seeing as it is standard practice for the vaccine industry to sell directly to governments. 

One has seen a number of conspiracy theories leveled against Medigen, many of which have been embraced or actively circulated by the pan-Blue camp. In particular, claims include that the Tsai administration deliberately engineered shortages of other vaccines so that the public would be pushed into using Medigen. Other claims were that the Tsai administration’s real interest in pushing for Medigen is because of its shadowy investments in the company, rather than that this is aimed at building up domestic capacity for vaccine manufacturing. 

But to this extent, one notes that the conspiracy theories used as accusations used against the Tsai administration vis-a-vis Medigen are more or less accusing the Tsai administration of behaving as the KMT did during authoritarian times. The KMT acted to benefit companies that it received kickbacks from in authoritarian times, as part of its deeply entrenched crony capitalism across all sectors of the Taiwanese economy. It proves ironic, then, that the KMT’s accusations against the Tsai administration are to accuse it of behaving as the KMT would have tried to—likely having little other ammunition to throw against the Tsai administration and likely having little understanding of alternative models of political behavior. 

Nevertheless, in this, the KMT would be doing what it has long done—denigrating and putting down Taiwan in order to try and bolster its claims to political legitimacy. Among some members of the KMT, this has included dismissing domestic vaccines as dangerous—even when they could save lives—and instead calling for the use of Chinese vaccines. Now, with COVID supplies finally sufficient in Taiwan, the KMT seeks to attack the Tsai administration as having ordered too many vaccines when months earlier it criticized the Tsai administration for having too few vaccines. This is nothing new for the KMT, which has generally sought to politicize COVID-19 for its own purposes.