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U.S. confident Taiwan can contain latest outbreak: AIT director

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Taipei, May 26 (CNA) The United States' de facto ambassador to Taiwan said the U.S. has confidence in Taiwan's ability to contain the recent COVID-19 surge while hinting that Taipei may not be a high priority in the U.S.' program to send vaccines overseas.

The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Brent Christensen, whose three-year term ends this summer, was responding to a question in the Q&A portion of his farewell press event during which vaccines were a major focus.

Earlier this month, U.S. President Joe Biden said the U.S. will send an additional 20 million vaccine doses overseas by the end of June to bring the total to 80 million, raising hopes that Taiwan could benefit given a recent surge in domestically transmitted COVID cases.

Asked to comment, Christensen first praised Taiwan, saying the international community has been very impressed with its ability to contain the spread of the pandemic over the past year.

Despite the surge in domestic cases in recent weeks, he said the U.S. is "very confident in the ability of Taiwan's health authorities to contain the latest outbreak."

On the vaccine allocation issue, Christensen said "I can assure everyone that we are engaging with Taiwan at all levels (over the issue)."

He also noted, however, that many of Taiwan's neighbors are also experiencing outbreaks and "Taiwan's infection numbers are still among the lowest around the world," suggesting that Taiwan's need for the vaccine is not as urgent as that of those neighbors.

Standards or criteria for the release of the vaccines are still being developed, he said, but he believed they will include the level of infection, each country's economic situation and health care system and the degree to which people have been vaccinated so far.

He also noted that Taiwan is developing its own vaccines that are expected to be available in coming months.

Taiwan's vaccine rollout has been extremely limited, in part because of its inability to get vaccines and also due to a sense they were not needed in Taiwan because COVID-19 had been kept at bay.

Even after the first does of the Astra Zeneca (AZ) vaccine arrived in March, Taiwan had trouble getting people to accept being vaccinated for weeks because of concerns over the safety of the AZ vaccine and the feeling it was not necessary.

But a recent surge in COVID-19 cases that started in late April and has ballooned to over 3,500 domestically transmitted cases reported since May 15 has changed people's minds, sending demand for the vaccine skyrocketing.

Taiwan received its latest batch of 410,400 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine on May 19, bringing the total number received to date to 726,600 for a country of 23.5 million people.

Those doses are expected to be administered beginning this Friday.

According to the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), which is in charge of Taiwan's COVID-19 response, 311,678 vaccine doses had been administered as of Monday.

The CECC has said Taiwan has signed contracts with various sources to purchase nearly 20 million vaccine doses, including 5.05 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and 4.76 million doses of unspecified brands through the COVAX program.

It has promised 8 million doses of vaccines to be available by the end of August, including of a locally developed vaccine that could become available starting in July.

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