Authorities in democratic Taiwan have banned the export of face-masks amid the global coronavirus epidemic, while curbing panic-buying at home with a centralized production, distribution and rationing system for its 23 million residents.
The government recently ordered 60 production lines to be set up to make surgical masks for frontline medics and the general public, President Tsai Ing-wen told journalists on Tuesday.
“Using mask production as an example, [we have brought in] export controls, government requisitioning, unified pricing and managed allocation, as well as increasing production capacity to bring new mask production online,” Tsai said.
“There are behind-the-scenes heroes at every step in the process,” she said. “It’s not easy working nights.”
“Now, not only are we seeing results, but many other countries are beginning to look at Taiwan and study its epidemic prevention plan,” Tsai said. “All of this has been possible because we have planned ahead and taken action sooner rather than later.”
The mask production drive was part of Tsai’s government’s bid to stave off panic-buying of crucial supplies during the COVID-19 outbreak, which has seen a total of just 47 cases and one death in spite of its position on China’s doorstep.
Masks are now available for named customers to buy online, as well as in pharmacies across the island, officials said on Tuesday.
Mask sale limits
Premier Su Tseng-chang said a real-name purchasing system will now operate online as well as in stores.
“People will be able to pick up the masks they ordered at supermarkets two weeks later,” Su said.
Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung, who heads the Central Epidemic Command Center, said the move had been brought in to ensure that office workers who didn’t have time to stand in line could still access protective supplies.
“If everyone orders online and knows when it’s coming, this will relieve the pressure on office workers having to stand in line,” Chen told journalists.
Masks are currently limited to seven per adult per week and five per child, using national ID cards to ensure nobody buys more than their share.
The island’s Academia Sinica on announced on Sunday that a team of its scientists had developed antibodies that can identify the protein that makes up the coronavirus, paving the way for a new, super-fast test for the disease.
While hospitals in Italy and Wuhan have been overwhelmed by coronavirus cases, and crucial supplies are running out in other countries, Taiwan’s government had its public health response already in place after developing it in the wake of the 2003 SARS epidemic.
In spite of having more than a million of its nationals living or traveling to mainland China and millions of tourist arrivals from China annually, and in spite of the outbreak exploding ahead of the Lunar New Year travel rush, the island has managed to stave off a major outbreak in the community so far.
Learning from SARS outbreak
The kingpin of Taiwan’s response has been its National Health Command Center (NHCC), set up in 2004 to ensure the mistakes of the SARS epidemic wouldn’t be repeated.
Officials were already checking arrivals from mainland China for fever or pneumonia by Dec. 31, as soon as China notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of the emergence of a new kind of pneumonia.
Two weeks later, anyone who had been to Wuhan in the previous two weeks was under health surveillance, while the island activated its Central Epidemic Command Center as early as Jan. 20, before the Chinese authorities had even ordered the lockdown of Wuhan.
According to the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website: “Taiwan employed the most powerful tools at its disposal – big data and analytics.”
Officials used Taiwan’s national health insurance program database and matched it with immigration records, quickly identifying anyone who had recently sought medical care after arriving from China.
Health officials began testing patients for coronavirus if they had severe respiratory illness and a negative influenza test so they could identify unsuspected cases and anyone with whom the patients might have had contact, CDC said.
Hotlines were set up for people to report suspicious symptoms or cases, while officials ensured there were enough supplies in place before the disease had had chance to spread in the community.
Classes are canceled if one student gets sick, and schools are closed if two pupils get sick. The closure of one third of schools in a given area will trigger the closure of all schools.
Meanwhile, Taiwan-based vaccine maker Adimmune Corporation has announced that a candidate vaccine for COVID-19 could be ready for animal trials as soon as May, the Taiwan News reported.
The company, which also makes seasonal influenza vaccines, said that once its planned new production line is operational, it will be able to fully supply orders both at home and abroad.
Reported by Hwang Chun-mei for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.