Taiwanese book 'Covid-19 vaccine tours' to US as island reports 585 new cases

A person dressed in protective suit walks down a street following the recent surge of coronavirus disease (Covid-19) infections in Taipei, Taiwan, June 2, 2021.
PHOTO: Reuters

Taiwan ’s Covid-19 vaccine shortage has prompted some residents to travel to the United States for inoculation as the island’s recent outbreak continued to spread, with 585 new infections and 17 new deaths reported on Thursday (June 3).

Demand for flights to the US has risen sharply, according to airline officials, while a travel agent said some Taiwanese were booking “vaccination tours” as supplies of jabs ran low on the island.

Taoyuan International Airport, usually empty since the coronavirus was discovered 18 months ago, has had streams of passengers arriving for flights to the US since late May, an airport official said.

Of the 2,700 outbound passengers on Wednesday, close to 1,000 were heading to the US, to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and New York.

Rising demand has prompted EVA Air and China Airlines, Taiwan’s two major carriers, to increase their flights to the US. EVA plans a daily flight to Los Angeles from next week, up from three per week, and China Airlines plans to use bigger planes to accommodate demand in June, airline officials said.

“The rise in demand has something to do with the recent spike in Covid-19 cases in Taiwan, especially when the death toll has increased sharply,” said Philip Wang, a travel agent in Taipei.

Since April 25, when the latest outbreak started, Taiwan has reported more than 8,000 locally transmitted infections and 152 deaths.

On Thursday, the Central Epidemic Command Centre reported 364 new local cases, two new imported cases, 219 cases delayed by a reporting backlog last week, and 17 new deaths – bringing Taiwan’s totals since the pandemic began to 9,974 cases with 166 deaths.

Wang said a number of Taiwanese who were American nationals or held permanent US residency had travelled to the island when the US was struggling to respond to the coronavirus, but were now returning to the US with Taiwan – which previously contained the virus successfully – experiencing a worsening outbreak.

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“There are also people who want to take advantage of the relatively easily available vaccines in the US,” Wang said.

He said some rich Taiwanese had organised “vaccination tours” to the US, planning to stay for a month or two while getting jabs.

Less than three per cent of the island’s 23.5 million people have been vaccinated.

Taiwan has so far received 870,000 vaccine doses – 720,000 from British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca and 150,000 from US-based Moderna. It has signed deals to buy 10 million shots from AstraZeneca, 5 million doses from Moderna and more than 4.7 million doses via the Covax Facility.

It has also signed deals with Taiwan’s Medigen Vaccine Biologics and United Biomedical for five million doses apiece, and agreed verbally to buy a further five million of each. The decision drew criticism because the vaccines are still undergoing clinical trials.

PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Some Taiwanese at Taoyuan airport told cable news network TVBS that they were going to the US because of better vaccine availability there. Medical and frontline workers are prioritised for Taiwan’s jabs.

“Because vaccination is available in the US, I think I should take the jabs there,” one told the broadcaster on Wednesday.

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“I don’t think I would dare to take [locally developed vaccines], because they have yet to complete the final clinical trial,” another passenger said. “I will definitely take the jabs while in the US.”

On Thursday, Taiwan’s cabinet approved a NT$73.4 billion (S$3.5 billion) budget for the island’s health authorities to tackle the latest outbreak, of which NT$26.7 billion will be allocated for clinical trials and purchases of Covid-19 vaccines and drugs, it said in a statement.

The island’s legislature on Monday approved the cabinet’s proposed extra NT$420 billion in spending to help local businesses and individuals cope with the virus’ impact, adding to its total of NT$840 billion in stimulus measures since last year.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.