A public health professional on the Taiwan epidemic and the progress of vaccination
Taiwan’s latest Covid-19 outbreak is a lesson that a containment strategy aimed at zero local transmission may not be sustainable in the long term, a public health professor said on Tuesday.
Before the recent explosion of cases, Taiwan had reported very few Covid infections for over a year – and most were imported. This allowed day-to-day activities to continue largely as usual and earned the island praise from the international community for its containment measures.
But that has left Taiwan “completely vulnerable” to newer variants of the coronavirus which are more transmissible and potentially more serious, said Benjamin Cowling, professor and head of the epidemiology and biostatistics division at the School of Public Health of the University of Hong Kong.
“Probably less than 1% of their population has had a natural infection and therefore natural immunity, and … less than 1% have been vaccinated – so they’re almost completely susceptible,” Cowling told CNBC. “Squawk Box Asia. “
Taiwan, with a population of around 24 million, reported more than 8,500 confirmed cases of Covid and 124 deaths on Monday, official data showed.
Cowling said Taiwan would struggle to control the latest outbreak. Authorities may need tighter social distancing measures as testing capacity has not increased enough and progress in vaccination on the island has been slow, he added.
“This is a warning to other parts of Asia who are also attempting this elimination strategy, it is not necessarily sustainable in the long term,” said the professor.
Asian economies have generally shown lower tolerance to Covid infections compared to their counterparts in other regions.
Governments of Hong Kong and Singapore, for example, were quick to tighten measures to stem small increases in cases. Meanwhile, countries like the US and UK are still reporting thousands of cases daily, but faster vaccination has allowed countries to reverse their restrictions.
Like many of its regional peers in Asia, Taiwan has faced challenges securing Covid vaccines, Cowling said. Part of Taiwan’s obstacle is politics, the professor said.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said in a Facebook post last week that the government bought vaccines developed by AstraZeneca and Modern. She accused China of block an agreement with Germany BioNTech, who co-developed a vaccine with the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer.
Beijing has denied Tsai’s accusation.
China claims Taiwan as a runaway province that must one day be reunited with the mainland – using force if necessary. The Chinese Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan, which is a democratic and autonomous island.
“There is a lot of politics involved in delivering vaccines to Taiwan,” Cowling said. “I think they will be able to do it, but they won’t be able to vaccinate enough people right now to stop the current outbreak, they have to use social distancing, lockdowns to deal with that.”