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UPDATE 1-BioNTech says will provide vaccines to Taiwan, talks ongoing

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·2 min read
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(Adds health minister, China government comments)

TAIPEI, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Germany's BioNTech SEsaid it plans to provide COVID-19 vaccine to Taiwan, after theisland complained the firm pulled out of a deal to sell it 5million doses at the last minute, possibly due to Chinesepressure.

Taiwan Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said on Wednesdayofficials were on the verge of announcing the deal in Decemberwhen BioNTech pulled the plug, but added that the deal was stillpending and had not been torn up.

While he did not directly say China was to blame, Chenimplied there was a political dimension to the decision as"certain people don't want Taiwan to be too happy".

In an emailed statement late Wednesday, the company said itwas planning on providing vaccine to Taiwan, though did not givedetails.

"BioNTech is committed to help bringing an end to thepandemic for people across the world and we intend to supplyTaiwan with our vaccine as part of this global commitment.Discussions are ongoing and BioNTech will provide an update."

Speaking on Thursday, Chen welcomed the news and expressedhis confidence they would be able to complete the deal.

"Taiwan has had many business contacts with Germany in thepast, and it is also a trusted business partner," he said.

China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, hasrepeatedly sparred with the island over the coronaviruspandemic.

Taiwan has been angered by China's assertion that only itcan speak for the island on the international stage about thesubject, while Taiwan has accused China of lack of transparency.

BioNTech signed a deal with Chinese firm Shanghai FosunPharmaceutical Group Co Ltd to exclusively developand commercialize COVID-19 vaccine products developed usingBioNTech's mRNA technology in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macauand Taiwan.

In return it agreed to pay up to $85 million in licensingfees and invest $50 million for a stake in the German firm.

BioNTech's development and distribution partner for the restof the world is U.S. firm Pfizer Inc.

Chen said they had had no direct contact with Fosun. Thecompany has not responded to requests for comment from Reuterson its role in any vaccine supply to Taiwan.

However, in a strongly worded statement on Thursday, China'sTaiwan Affairs Office said Taiwan was trying to "circumvent"Fosun and that it was "purely fictitious" China was behind theinitial deal being nixed.

"We advise the politicians of the Democratic ProgressiveParty they cannot shirk their responsibility by spreadingrumours and slander," it said, referring to Taiwan's rulingparty.

BioNTech's development and distribution partner for the restof the world is U.S. firm Pfizer Inc.

Taiwan announced late in December said it had agreed to buyalmost 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, including 10million from UK drugmaker AstraZeneca, with the restcoming from the COVAX global vaccine programme and anunidentified company.(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Yew LunTian in Beijing; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Kim Coghill)