Taiwan has proposed a regular communication channel with India to link up medical agencies to better cooperate in the fight against COVID-19, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told The Hindu in an exclusive interview on May 13.
He said Taiwan’s sharing of information on COVID-19 with countries had been limited by its arrangement with the World Health Organisation. “[India and Taiwan] have engaged in dynamic ongoing communication on many levels. Our sharing of information… has been restricted to relying on the IHR [International Health Regulations] focal point… The arrangement is far from satisfactory. Information has not been shared in a timely fashion,” he said.
What are the main lessons from Taiwan’s experience in battling COVID-19?
Our experience with SARS in 2003 was traumatic. The experience taught Taiwan that acting quickly and ensuring advanced deployment are the keys to preventing the spread of an epidemic. Our government, moreover, has been transparent and has kept the public up-to-date at all times. This is why the Taiwan model of fighting disease has proven effective. When the first case of the coronavirus arrived on January 21, we set up the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC). We quickly issued an export ban on critical medical supplies. We have designated 160 testing facilities around the country. From these facilities, people with the disease are either sent to one of 134 medical facilities for milder cases, or 50 large regional centres for more severe cases. This system allows us to quickly isolate patients based on their severity, as well as allocate medical personnel and equipment. I would like to point out that National Health Insurance, which covers 99% of our people, is the key to our success in rationing critical supplies and contact tracing.
Have Taiwan and India been in touch during the pandemic?
Despite the lack of official diplomatic ties between Taiwan and India, both countries set up representative offices in each other’s respective capitals in 1995. Since then, we have engaged in dynamic ongoing communication on many levels. However, our sharing of information on COVID-19 has been restricted to relying on the International Health Regulations (IHR) focal point under the WHO. The arrangement is far from satisfactory. Information has not been shared in a timely fashion. The pandemic did not draw due global attention until late January, when it was finally declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the WHO. In retrospect, it is clear that the international community was not fully informed as to the risk of a devastating pandemic.
Are there particular areas where you think Taiwan and India can work together to fight the pandemic?
Let me give you two examples of how we are doing so already. First, on February 20, researchers at Academia Sinica announced they had synthesised over 100 milligrams of Remdesivir, an experimental treatment for COVID-19, to 97% purity. It took the team, which includes two members from India, just two weeks. Second is how Taiwan’s medical institutions have been sharing related information.
On April 2 and 14, two Taiwan-India Webinars on COVID-19 were held. These were a product of collaboration between National Cheng Kung University Hospital and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Over 14,000 healthcare workers in India benefited from these webinars. Taiwan’s physicians shared their experience fighting the pandemic, including testing methods, treatments, approaches to containing infection, and measures concerning masks. Also Taiwan will provide face masks to India in support of frontline medical personnel. Taiwan is eager to work with India to fight COVID-19.
Is Taiwan concerned by the disruption of global supply chains for both medicines and personal protective equipment?
The continuing spread of COVID-19 has affected global pharmaceutical supply chains. Prices of active pharmaceutical ingredients have gone up. Taiwan has naturally been affected to a certain extent. Our government has been working with domestic manufacturers of pharmaceuticals to source needed inputs from, for example, India, Europe, or the U.S.
Do you see room for India and Taiwan to coordinate on this front?
Information sharing and multilateral coordination play a critical role in preventing pandemics. A joint effort is needed to keep the world safe. I would like to see closer interactions and engagement by our research teams on medicine and related technology. Taiwan and India could consider setting up a regular communications channel between our medical agencies in order to ensure the availability of medical resources.
We could also work to explore the feasibility of mutually beneficial investments and cooperation to strengthen supply chains for pharmaceuticals, inputs, and equipment.
Can you share with us when Taiwan first alerted the WHO on human-to-human transmission and the response?
The Taiwan Centers for Disease Control learned from online sources that there had been at least seven cases of atypical pneumonia in Wuhan, China. In China, the term “atypical pneumonia” is commonly used to refer to SARS, a disease transmitted between humans caused by coronavirus. On December 31, 2019, Taiwan sent an email to the IHR focal point under the World Health Organization, informing the WHO of its understanding of the disease and also requesting further information from the WHO.
The WHO IHR focal point only responded with a short message stating that Taiwan’s information had been forwarded to expert colleagues. No follow up information was provided.
What in your view are the main lessons for the WHO going forward?
Since the outbreak of the pandemic at the beginning of the year, although WHO has said little about Taiwan’s disease-prevention efforts, Taiwan is willing to share its experience with the WHO and other nations. If Taiwan could participate fully in the WHO and if it could interact with other countries on an equal basis under the WHO framework, more nations would receive Taiwan’s early warning.
The world might be a different place today. Where possible, Taiwan is willing and eager to continue providing medical supplies to nations suffering badly from this disease. Taiwan has recently, for example, donated over 17 million medical masks to countries around the world. We are also making donation arrangements for India, which is an important partner for Taiwan. We will continue operating in the spirit of “Taiwan Can Help” and share Taiwan’s experience with the world.