Foxconn, founder Gou apply to purchase BioNTech vaccines for Taiwan

Soldiers in protective suits disinfect a street following the recent surge of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections, in the Tucheng district of New Taipei City, Taiwan May 27, 2021. REUTERS/Ann Wang/File Photo

TAIPEI, June 1 (Reuters) - Foxconn (2317.TW) and its billionaire founder Terry Gou sought permission from Taiwan's government on Tuesday to buy COVID-19 vaccines from Germany's BioNTech SE (22UAy.DE) after the island was hit with a rise in infections.

The proposed purchase of 5 million doses, which would be distributed among the general population, comes after the government ceded to pressure from opposition parties to allow companies, religious groups and local governments to arrange imports.

The Taiwanese government's own deal with BioNTech fell through earlier this year - a problem Taiwan has blamed on pressure from Beijing. China has denied the accusation.

BioNTech declined to comment.

Gou, who has retired from the world's largest contract manufacturer, said on Saturday they hope to airlift the shots from Germany to Taiwan without going via any middlemen.

Taiwan Health Minister Chen Shih-chung expressed his gratitude to Gou and said the government was reviewing the application.

After recording just a handful of daily infections for months, Taiwan is now dealing with relatively large numbers of community transmissions.

It has vaccinated less than 2% of its 23.5 million people, but has almost 30 million shots on order from AstraZeneca Plc (AZN.L), Moderna Inc (MRNA.O) and two domestic firms.

While it welcomes help in obtaining vaccines from companies and religious groups, Taiwan's government has stipulated that only it can distribute the shots. Companies and other groups must also provide letters of authorisation from the original manufacturer.

Gou's office said they had provided all the documentation the government had requested.

Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co Ltd (600196.SS) has a contract with BioNTech to sell the vaccines in Greater China, including to Taiwan, but Taiwan's government says it has and will only deal with BioNTech in Germany and that it does not trust vaccines from China.

Fosun did not respond to a request for comment on Foxconn and Gou's plans.

China's Taiwan Affairs Office, in a statement to Reuters, reiterated that it was Fosun's commercial right to sell the BioNTech vaccine to Taiwan and that China's government was coordinating with "relevant parties" on the island to talk to Fosun. It gave no details.

Outside of Greater China, BioNTech has partnered with Pfizer Inc (PFE.N).

Taiwan's Buddha Light International Association has also proposed importing up to 500,000 shots of Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ.N) vaccine.

Chao Yi, the association's president, said they would be seeking to get in touch with the U.S. pharma giant this week after it had previously expressed willingness to sell the group vaccines. The association is working on the documentation required by the government.

However, Johnson & Johnson said it was only negotiating with government bodies and supranational organisations like the European Commission for vaccine purchases.

"We are not working with or through third parties for vaccine access during the current emergency pandemic period," it said in a statement to Reuters.

Taiwan's infection numbers are starting to retreat, but Chen said the island could not be complacent. Numbers have fallen for the past six days, with 327 new cases reported on Tuesday.

"We don't have the capital to relax," Chen said.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee; Editing by Edwina Gibbs

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