Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has rolled up her sleeve today to get one of the first doses of the newly minted Taiwanese-made COVID-19 vaccine.
The Taiwanese stock market also got a shot in the arm. The Taiex Index climbed 2.5% on Monday, bringing its year-to-date gain to 32.8%, an exceptionally strong showing mainly on the back of the island nation's chipmakers.
The drug is made by Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corp. (TW:6547). Tsai held off on taking vaccines made by Moderna (MRNA) or AstraZeneca (AZN) , both of which are available on the island, so she could receive the local option at a hospital in central Taipei.
Medigen has been an exceptionally volatile stock. The stock's recent underpinning has been the decision on July 19 by the Taiwanese government to approve its COVID-19 vaccine for production and emergency use.
The shares quadrupled in price during a surge this spring (up 304.5% between Jan. 29 and May 17), only to suffer a 50.2% setback in short order at the end of May. The runup began when the company started Phase 2 testing in Taiwan in late January.
Since the July approval of the drug in Taiwan, the shares have rallied another 62.4% from that short-term low, although they are still 19.2% below their May 17 high. Recent gains seem more sustainable - the stock got ahead of itself during optimism about its trials, but the shots are for real now, going into arms.
The opposition party, the Kuomintang, has fiercely protested against the drug's use, saying the approval has been hasty. A former vice chairman of the party filed a lawsuit to invalidate Medigen's drug approval. A court threw out that case last week. Another top party official says that Taiwanese people who take the vaccine are "white rats in a laboratory."
To me, this politicization of the vaccine process the world over has been a depressing repeat feature of pandemic drug rollout. There's been persistent abuse of public-health advice for personal or political gain.
The Kuomintang don't seem to have any medical evidence about the vaccine; it's just "too new." As with other vaccines in use around the world, I'm not sure what is the appropriate waiting period before a new drug is no longer "too new." You can call it "groundbreaking," "cutting edge," or you can call it "untested."
Actually, critics may have a point there. Taiwan has approved the Medigen drug before it clears the island's Phase 3 trials, although it did clear the previous phases. There is also no public efficacy data on the drug yet, although the government says antibody levels in test patients were similar to those created by the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The company also won approval in July to conduct Phase 3 trials of the drug in Paraguay, where 1,000 volunteers will have the shot.
Taiwan refused last week to clear another locally-made COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use. That drug, made by United Biomedical, was turned down after a review found that antibody concentrations weren't high enough. That's in contrast to the Medigen drug.
Taiwan claimed that the Beijing government has been blocking it from signing a deal with BioNTech (BNTX) to deliver vaccines to the island. The BioNTech/Pfizer (PFE) drug has a mainland distribution partner, Fosun Pharmaceutical (SFOSF) , which also has the rights to distribute the drug in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
China denies it is blocking a BioNTech deal, but let's be real - it would love to stop vaccines entering the island, which it insists is part of China, unless they're made in China. It could score huge political points that way. The Beijing government has instead offered to send mainland-made vaccines to Taiwan - which just ain't going to happen. Fosun then said it would supply drugs if desired, to which Tsai responded that Taiwan only wants to deal with the original manufacturer.
The Medigen vaccine, officially called MVC-COV1901, has been developed in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. drug company Dynavax Technologies (DVAX) .
Technically, it is a protein subunit vaccine with a recombinant spike-protein antigen, S-2P, that uses a Dynavax adjuvant. Patients take two doses, one month apart. Medigen has manufactured 614,204 doses that are now ready for use and is working double time to ramp up production. Taiwan for now says only those over 20 should take it.
The introduction of a locally made vaccine is an important step as Taiwan tries to create national self-sufficiency on vaccines. The Taiwanese government has ordered 5 million Medigen doses, although it says no one will be forced to take it.
It has already received 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca and Moderna shots, which judging by the numbers have all been administered. In July, the government ordered another 30 million doses of the Moderna drug.
Medigen is also in late-stage clinical testing of drugs to combat dengue fever, flu and the hand-foot-and-mouth disease.
Taiwan was an early and exceptional success story in containing the virus. It closed its borders immediately with China, and then the rest of the world. Despite the close business ties between mainland China and Taiwan, the expected large-scale outbreak of the disease never occurred.
There have been 15,926 cases of COVID-19 on the island so far, and 828 deaths. It was reporting almost zero infections, and fewer than 1,500 cumulative cases until a big spike in May and June, a surge in infection that's now under control.
But while Taiwan was very effective at preventing infection, it has been late to the game in getting the island's 23.6 million people vaccinated. It has now administered 10.1 million doses, and 39% of people have had at least one dose. But only 3.2% of the Taiwan population is fully covered.