Taipei, Taiwan – After 18 months of efficiently protecting COVID-19 at bay, Taiwan is now dealing with a surge in circumstances after an outbreak was found in mid-Could.

From simply 1,200 circumstances and a handful of deaths among the many island’s inhabitants of 23 million, the variety of confirmed circumstances had reached greater than 11,000 by Tuesday and the loss of life toll had risen to 308.

The self-ruled island was broadly praised final 12 months for its efficient response to COVID-19, which included strict border controls and get in touch with tracing. Now, as they grapple with life beneath lockdown for the primary time, many in Taiwan are questioning what went improper.

Six months in the past, Al Jazeera interviewed Chen Chien-jen, Taiwan’s former vice chairman and well being minister who made his title in the course of the SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] outbreak almost 20 years in the past, about why Taiwan had been so successful in fighting COVID-19.

This week, we spoke to the epidemiologist once more – over Zoom – in regards to the island’s sudden change in fortunes.

Chen says the outbreak is partly the results of “prevention fatigue” as individuals let down their guard.

Hospitals, which had been alleged to have devoted COVID-19 and isolation wards, had additionally begun utilizing them for different sufferers and the well being system was unprepared for the sudden surge in coronavirus circumstances, which have been traced again to a bunch of airline pilots, he mentioned.

For Chen, the primary two weeks of the outbreak “had been a catastrophe”.

Taiwan is beneath COVID-19 alert degree 3 till not less than June 28 after a sudden cluster of circumstances emerged linked to quarantines for airline pilots [Ritchie B Tongo/EPA]

The interview has been edited for size and readability.

The COVID-19 scenario in Taiwan has immediately grow to be very critical. What do you assume went improper?

Courting again to April, we began to have this British variant B117 imported from different nations and as you understand B117 is a extremely infectious virus. The second necessary attribute is it causes a variety of asymptotic and gentle circumstances.

It began from China Airways and Novotel workers, then transmitted to New Taipei Metropolis and the Lions Golf equipment, after which transmitted to Yilan and it lastly bought to Wanhua’s grownup leisure venues, the so-called “tea homes”.

On Could 15, earlier than our Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) introduced the Degree 3 (semi-lockdown) alert, President Tsai Ing-wen referred to as a gathering and invited me. (I mentioned) 1000’s and 1000’s of individuals can be contaminated this time.

How do you assume the present epidemic procedures are going?

Within the first week of Could 15, day-after-day we had round 500 to 600 individuals contaminated and my former boss requested me is that ok, I mentioned I can’t say if that’s the height. However fortuitously for the primary seven days it’s 500-600 circumstances, and the second week is 400 to 500, after which 300 to 400. Now it’s 200 to 300.

Which means the epidemic curve has been levelled off by means of the efforts of Degree 3 alert.

So I believe it’s a great signal, however (the numbers are) additionally a nasty signal. The illness has grow to be endemic, which suggests the virus in Taiwan has neighborhood transmission and it is rather, very tough to eradicate the virus in any respect now.

Final February, I had some suspicions and sadly, my suspicion was proper that COVID-19 is mutating, and it’s changing into flu-like.

The one manner Taiwan can have excellent containment on this second section of the pandemic is the elevated herd immunity by means of a nationwide immunisation program and urge the CECC to attempt to get the vaccine as quickly as doable.

What do you consider Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 six months later?

I believe that for the prevention of the pandemic, there are two methods to do it scientifically. The primary one is the interruption of the virus transmission. That’s what we had been doing in 2020 and it gave the impression to be very profitable.

However there’s prevention fatigue, individuals get bored with it they usually considerably loosen their consciousness.  So earlier than November 2020, Taiwan performed excellent first half of the sport, however within the second half we ran brief (as a result of) of the vaccine.

I’ve to admit within the very first two weeks (of the latest outbreak) was actually a catastrophe. Too many individuals bought an an infection and too many individuals rushed out to be examined and neighborhood stations weren’t prepared in any respect and never even the hospitals.

Initially, we requested each hospital to have a chosen ward or isolation room for COVID-19 sufferers, however since there have been no COVID-19 circumstances, all of the hospitals thought they didn’t want it so that they stuffed in a variety of sufferers within the designated isolation rooms.

The scenario is sort of much like any nation with this surge of sufferers however fortuitously, I’d say, after two weeks, the community-based screenings stations had been arrange after which there have been an increasing number of isolation rooms obtainable.

If COVID-19 has grow to be extra just like the flu, what does that imply for Taiwan?

I wish to share first how we combatted influenza going again to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

We did three issues: one is superb contact tracing and in addition dwelling quarantining of contaminated individuals. For contaminated individuals, after they had very extreme signs they bought a fast check and instantly and they might get antiviral, the so-called Tamiflu. They didn’t must do any type of dwelling quarantine as their viral load went down they usually recovered.

At the moment, we developed Taiwan’s first home flu vaccine after which we used the worldwide and home one to immunise individuals. If COVID-19 goes to grow to be an increasing number of flu-like, sooner or later, we want an excellent and really delicate particular fast analysis check and a so-called antiviral for actually contaminated individuals like influenza.

The outbreak has left Taiwan weak as a result of so few individuals have been vaccinated for the illness, It’s now stepping up the programme and Japan and the US are sending doses [Sam Yeh/AFP]

Taiwan is struggling now to get sufficient vaccines. Why?

As you understand, we’ve an ordered 20 million doses of the vaccine: from COVAX round 5 million, Moderna 5 million and AstraZeneca 10 million. The (home vaccines) Medigen, in addition to United Biomedical, are in section 2 scientific trials. If their security and efficacy are good, they could get emergency-use authorisation.

However as you understand, though we have already got the acquisition order with COVAX, the supply is considerably delayed and considerably insufficient. At the very least we bought the 1.25 million (AstraZeneca) donation from Japan and 0.75 million doses of Moderna from the United States. We hope that in June we will vaccinate three million individuals, and if it goes easily with the worldwide vaccine and home efforts, we hope in July there can be one other six million vaccines obtainable, and in August one other six million obtainable.

By the tip of August, I hope we might immunise not less than 15 million individuals in Taiwan with (not less than) one dose and at that time the epidemic is likely to be contained significantly better.  With some hope and if that’s the case then we’re going to return to a brand new regular life.

What is going to resolve the present disaster?

The one factor we will do is immunisation. We attempt to get all people to have resistance to it, and extra importantly, the immunisation needs to be applied as quickly as doable and on as giant a scale as doable. This isn’t just for Taiwan, that is for the remainder of the world.

There’s a type of competitors in time with virus. If (the) coronavirus goes to maintain mutating like influenza virus, then sometime, someway there can be a brand new variant which the present vaccine can’t stop it in people in any respect.

What do you consider the idea COVID-19 might have been leaked from a lab?

In keeping with latest report there’s a piece of human genome within the COVID-19 virus, and it’s actually bizarre. It appears to be genetically modified or inserted by among the lab and that’s the explanation why US President Joe Biden has requested their consultants to attempt to look into it.

Another excuse individuals have their suspicions is when the WHO delegation went to the Wuhan lab, they didn’t get very a lot data from their go to in any respect. If there actually are human genes within the virus, then we’ve to determine the way it may very well be built-in into the virus gene. That is very robust proof to point that in some lab some (researchers) did a laboratory experiment.