An audio file of this Briefing is available here.
Moderator: Thank you. Good day, everyone, from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I am Zia Syed, the Hub Director, and I would like to welcome our participants dialing in for this briefing. Today we are very pleased to be joined from Taipei, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar.
We will begin with opening remarks from Secretary Azar. We will open up the floor and get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 30 minutes. Please note that due to the very high number of journalists on this call, we ask that you please limit your questions to just the one question so others can participate.
Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Secretary Azar.
Secretary Azar: Great. Thank you, Zia. And thank you, everyone, for joining. Thank you to the American Institute in Taiwan and the Asia Pacific Media Hub for putting this call together. I greatly appreciate the chance to speak with members of the media throughout East Asia and the Indo-Pacific and to underscore why I’m visiting Taiwan this week.
It’s an honor to be here in Taiwan and to be bringing greetings from President Trump during this challenging time for the world. My visit to Taiwan is a recognition of its success in combating COVID-19 and a testament to our shared beliefs that open, democratic societies are best equipped to combat infectious disease threats like COVID-19. I want to emphasize that the same goes for many of our other allies around this region, including Japan and the Republic of Korea.
As I said yesterday at National Taiwan University, if a novel virus like this one had emerged in the United States, Taiwan, or another open society, it would have gone very differently. It would have been reported to public health authorities who would have shared that information with the public and with medical professionals.
Even more important, it would have been reported in a timely, accurate, and transparent manner under the International Health Regulations under which Taiwan has been a model of compliance on information sharing.
And of course, journalists like you would have been able to inform the public about this vital health information in an open and transparent manner.
Everyone in Taiwan can take pride in the success that they have had against this virus. Truly, the Taiwan model of responding to COVID-19 has been a model for the world.
The various activities throughout my trip reflect that theme. In meeting with both President Tsai and Foreign Minister Wu, I emphasized the United States’ belief that Taiwan should be able to share its lessons, successes, and expertise on the world stage, including at the World Health Organization.
In meeting with my counterpart, Minister Chen of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, we marked the more than two decades of cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan on health. The American Institute in Taiwan and the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office signed a memorandum of understanding that will formalize this relationship and lay a foundation for deeper cooperation in the years to come.
Later this morning, with Vice Premier Shen, I will visit the Chang Hong face mask machine factory, which has helped manufacture supplies to combat COVID-19. That visit underscores the value we place on the burgeoning U.S.-Taiwan economic relationship and the success of Taiwan’s dynamic, free-market approach to economics, with Taiwan now ranking as one of the United States’ top 10 trading partners.
I have also had the chance to meet with many of Taiwan’s world-class public health experts, including former Vice President Chen, who obtained his doctorate in epidemiology and genetics from Johns Hopkins University in the United States. Vice President Chen played a key role in Taiwan’s decision to undergo a joint external evaluation of its health security work in 2016, becoming just the eighth jurisdiction to do so.
That is just one more example of why we have argued for Taiwan to be allowed to participate in global and regional arenas for cooperation. Taiwan has much to share with the world, and I emerge from this trip only more convinced of that fact. Taiwan is a democratic success story, a reliable partner, and a force for good in the world.
To conclude, I want to offer a special thank you to everyone I have met while I have been in Taiwan. I have been warmly welcomed here, and I am grateful to have learned so much about Taiwan’s success in health, economics, and open, democratic governance.
So, thank you again to everyone here in Taiwan for welcoming me, and I’m now happy to take some questions.
Moderator: Thank you, Secretary. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. Just a reminder, if you are asking questions, please state your name, media affiliation, and location.
Our first question will go to Tingting Liu from TVBS News in Taipei. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi, Secretary Azar. It’s an honor to be able to [inaudible] for the past two days in Taipei. I’m Tingting with TVBS News in Taiwan. I have a couple questions for you. First question is, has the current government – have they actually passed any message through you to bring back to pass to President Donald J. Trump?
And the other question I have for you is we noticed that you met with some of the economic officials and ministers in Taiwan. Has any issues on a free trade agreement been discussed? And you mentioned that Taiwan is a successful story and you are going to visit the mask manufacturer this morning, so what kind of success story, or what kind of experience are you trying to look and learn from the mask manufacturers this morning? Thank you.
Secretary Azar: Great, thank you very much. In terms of any message, if I understood your first question correctly, any message from the Taiwan government to President Trump, obviously that would remain something confidential. But the message that I brought from President Trump to Taiwan and the people of Taiwan is how much their friendship and partnership across security, economic, and heath care issues is valued by him and by the United States, as well as by the people of the world.
Second, yes, we have had some discussions around economics, including trade. I’ll leave that at that, but obviously that’s an important potential issue.
And third, in terms of going to visit the face mask machining factory, one of the things that I was actually quite touched to learn was that back in April, Taiwan donated face masks and other personal protective equipment to the United States. What I’ve learned during this trip was that they did so even at a time when they were asking their own people to limit their use of face coverings because of a shortage of supply, because, just like the United States, they did not have adequate domestic personal protective equipment manufacturing capability. I was quite touched that Taiwan would have been so generous to the United States and others in the world, even as they were having to restrict use of them.
President Trump has declared it a national strategic priority to have domestic manufacturing of personal protective equipment, as well as other key health care supplies, and so I am interested when I visit Chang Hong face mask machine factory to learn more about the technical aspects of that. So, thank you for those questions.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we will go to Eryk Bagshaw from the Sydney Morning Herald in Canberra. Eryk, please go ahead.
Question: Thanks for the briefing, Secretary Azar. Eryk Bagshaw here from the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Australia. While in Taipei, you have met not only with the health minister but also the president and foreign minister, and you’ve made it clear that you are representing the White House. Is this visit about more than just Taiwan’s response to COVID-19? Is it also about sending a message to Beijing? And are you being deliberately provocative in doing so?
Secretary Azar: Thank you. So yes, I’ve met with a host of senior officials in Taiwan. I was very honored to meet with President Tsai as well as Vice President Lai, and then today, I’ll be sitting with Vice Premier Shen. And I’ve just met with just a whole host of academic leaders, of infectious disease leaders, of – with Minister of Foreign Affairs Wu, the national security advisor, just really so many individuals that are part of the cabinet.
And really, my message and my visit are focused on the deep partnership and friendship between the United States and Taiwan. And it really is, I guess, three core elements. The first is recognizing Taiwan for its vibrant, democratic, open, and transparent governance and society. That has been readily apparent to me just in the extremely active, vigorous media interactions that we have seen – very transparent media interactions.
Second, has been to congratulate and hold up Taiwan as a model in health care of transparency, openness, collaboration, and cooperation. And that does stand in contradistinction to the conduct of the Chinese Communist Party throughout this. Where China could have – and should have – disclosed more information, more transparently, and more cooperatively regarding COVID-19. They should have disclosed the rapid human-to-human transmission of the disease that they knew about. They should have disclosed the asymptomatic carriage and transmission of the disease.
For a month and a half, they delayed allowing outside experts in to learn more about the nature of the disease. All the while, continuing to pressure the World Health Organization to stop other countries from having border controls and travel restrictions, even as China imposed internal travel restrictions while still allowing their people to travel throughout the world, including to Europe, which then allowed people in – the travelers in Europe to spread disease across the United States.
And then, third, is to recognize the critical nature that Taiwan’s example could serve in international public health fora like the World Health Organization, where for 40 years, the Communist Party of China has bullied and blocked Taiwan from having observer status there. And I have, for three years of my tenure, fought vigorously to try to restore that observer status, because Taiwan is on the front lines of emerging infectious disease in this part of the [world]; they have been a model of how to handle that; they have been transparent, compliant with the International Health Regulations; and the rest of the world deserves to learn from those experts and those experiences. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Next, we will go to Elvis Chang from NTDAPTV from – in Taiwan. Elvis, please go ahead.
Question: Thank you to the Minister. And Taiwan’s public health system is praised [inaudible] internationally, and another example is that Taiwan’s leading legislation in 2015 has forbidden [inaudible] a transparent tone, and set a new world standard. And the United States Congress and the EU parliament both passed a law, resolution [inaudible] CCP’s forced organ harvesting from the prisoners of conscience, and the United States – United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the USCIRF, called on united governments – the United States Government to conduct a complete investigation. So will the U.S. HHS have plans to investigate, or prevention? And would HHS cooperate with Taiwan on this topic? Thank you.
Secretary Azar: So, I wasn’t able to, I’m afraid, to hear all aspects of the question. What I would – I did hear a reference to religious liberty, and I wanted to recognize also, just as a democratic and open society, how Taiwan was, I believe, one of the first entities to participate in Secretary Pompeo’s call for global religious freedom, the global religious freedom conference that Secretary Pompeo led to respect the rights and conscience of individuals around the world.
I did want to – I wanted to correct: I was referring to in the answer to the previous question, how Taiwan is on the front lines of novel emerging infectious disease, and I meant to say in this part of the world, obviously – in the world. This is – this part of the world is where we do see so many emerging novel pathogens. So, thank you for that clarification.
Moderator: Thank you, Secretary. Next we will go to Jaedong Yu from the Dong-a Daily, based in New York, I believe. Jaedong, can you please go ahead?
Question: Yes, hi. I’m Jae, South Korean newspaper Dong-a Daily. I’m calling from New York. Taiwan is succeeding in containing the virus, and South Korea also is. South Korea has only about 300 deaths with 50 million population. What do you think the reason for this success is? And, President Trump in a recent interview with Axios, he suggested that he cannot trust South Korea’s coronavirus death numbers. I don’t know, maybe he instinctively thought the death number is too low for the large population of South Korea? What is your thought on this? Do you think there is any possibility that the South Korean government is manipulating statistics? Thank you.
Secretary Azar: Thank you for the question. So, the circumstances in South Korea and Taiwan, of course, are different than those in the United States. For instance, Taiwan has 23 million people on an island, has of course different cultural, social, legal norms. It has been very interesting to me to learn from Taiwan officials and public health leaders about the very aggressive steps that they took. Some of those we can learn from, and might be applicable to our experiences; some of course not.
South Korea’s situation, of course, was a very localized outbreak at a massive church facility, and South Korea then took very strong action with regard to those in attendance, and the contacts of those who were in attendance. The scope and scale of what we deal with in the United States with 330 million Americans, one of the world’s largest and diverse geographies, being the economic, travel powerhouse and hub of the world, makes our circumstances of course very different, in addition, of course, to our federalist system of multiple sovereigns – federal and state sovereigns with divided jurisdictions.
So, it presents different circumstances and each jurisdiction has to come up with the interventions and mechanisms that fit its legal, cultural, and social situation. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go to Joyce Frieden from MedPage Today in Washington. Joyce, please go ahead.
Question: Yes, hi. Thanks for taking my call. Secretary Azar, the last reporter sort of asked my question. I was going to ask you for a specific example of a lesson that you might take back to the U.S. from what you have seen in Taiwan. But, if you can’t answer that, I’d be interested in what you’re seeing in terms of a vaccine timeline in the U.S. and whether you think something will happen before the end of the year.
Secretary Azar: Well, thank you, Joyce. And in fact, I hope you saw the announcement that we made just today about the Moderna vaccine, that we have now secured an advanced manufacturing contract for supply of the Moderna vaccine. And so now that means that thanks to President Trump’s historic Operation Warp Speed initiative that is a whole-of-government, whole-of-economy, public-private, really once-in-a-generation type initiative, along the scale and lines of the Apollo project, that we now have six vaccines under contract. So, we have, of those six vaccines, all six we have either manufacturing contracts to supply, or advanced procurement contracts to purchase.
Four of those six have already reported out positive phase one clinical trial data, meaning that they provided what are called neutralizing antibodies at a level at, or above, what people recovering from COVID-19 produce in their own bodies; that the safety profile has not shown severe adverse event reports, and the adverse events that they’ve seen have often tended to be dose-related, so the dose can be adjusted in later-stage clinical trials.
Two of the six vaccines that we are invested in [were] initiated weeks ago in phase three clinical trials, which are the dispositive clinical trials, and we have more that will enter phase three in the near term. As a result of this just unprecedented action, historic speed – never before has a vaccine in the developed world gone from phase one to phase three as quickly as the Moderna vaccine from March to a couple of weeks ago when it entered phase three. And of course, the United States has committed that any vaccine that we would distribute would be safe and effective and meet the Food and Drug Administration’s gold standard for authorization or approval.
We believe, and Dr. Fauci has said this as well as others — we believe that it is highly credible that we will have in the high tens of millions of doses of gold-standard, safe and effective vaccine by the end of this year, and many hundreds of millions of doses as we go into the beginning of next year. I would note that my colleague, the European Commissioner for Health, she just the other day also recognized that they would expect that there would be a safe and effective vaccine beginning to be produced and available by the end of this year, and I think that confirms our own scientific, technical, manufacturing, clinical assessment of the probabilities with the historic U.S. program.
Moderator: Thank you. Next if we could go to Nhu Nguyen from OEC in Danang, Vietnam. Nhu, please go ahead.
Moderator: Please go ahead.
Question: Yes. I have a question about your implication — I think that in your statement, there are implications between the correlation between the political [systems], and the openness of information sharing. So what do you – can you clarify [inaudible] your statement? Can you clarify that – does it mean that in a political system like China and Vietnam – we have the same. So what is your consideration of this?
Secretary Azar: So, I think your – I want to restate what I believe your question was. I believe the question was whether we believe there’s a correlation between political systems and information sharing in health care. I would – what I would do is speak just to examples, which is that Taiwan, which has a democratic, open, and transparent society and governance structure, has produced transparent, open, collaborative, cooperative public health information sharing. And the Chinese Communist Party has not delivered that – with all of the examples I described before: the failure to share viral isolates from the initial cases; the failure to disclose rapid human-to-human transmission; failure to disclose asymptomatic transmission; failure to allow in external experts to learn about the disease. Just a series of actions like that, that really are dictated by the Chinese Communist Party.
I don’t want to comment on any other country’s actions, any other jurisdictions’ or countries’ behaviors or actions, but that I do think that’s what we’ve seen certainly so far.
Moderator: Thank you. We’re going to be running out of time here, but there’s still quite a few people on the line so we’ll try to get in as many as we can. Next, we’ll go to Christian Esguerra from ABS-CBN News in Manila. Christian, please go ahead.
Question: Hi, good evening, Mr. Secretary. What do you think of this vaccine supposedly developed by Russia? There’s a lot of concern that somehow Moscow rushed the development of that vaccine. And here in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte actually said that he would want to be publicly injected by that vaccine. Basically, he volunteered to be experimented on. What do you think of that?
Secretary Azar: Well, so it’s important that we provide safe, effective vaccines and that the data be transparent. The United States commitment through our historic Operation Warp Speed effort and through the Food and Drug Administration is that any vaccine will be proven to be safe and effective in ethical clinical trials, and the data will be made transparently available and reviewed by outside experts.
This is not a race to be first. This is using every power of the U.S. government, its economy, our biopharmaceutical industry across the globe, and harnessing that to deliver as quickly as we can for the benefit of the United States’ citizens, but also for the people of the world, safe and effective vaccines. And I should note that the – that two of the six U.S. vaccines that we have invested in entered the phase three clinical trials weeks ago that the Russian vaccine is now only beginning, and the data from the initial trials in Russia have not been disclosed, it’s not transparent.
And so that would be our position, which is we will require any vaccine in the United States be safe and effective, and meet the FDA’s gold standard.
Moderator: Thank you. We’ll try to do two more. Next, if we can go to Kathrin Hille from the Financial Times in Taipei. Kathrin, please go ahead.
Question: Mr. Secretary, you said that you also discussed some economic topics, including trade, which would be an important potential issue. Can you clarify whether this touched upon the possibility of a bilateral trade agreement and/or some other issues, and whether this — the economic issues — were brought up by you or by the Taiwanese side? Thank you.
Secretary Azar: Well, I’m not going to get into a detailed recounting of our private discussions, but, as I mentioned, we did discuss trade issues, including questions surrounding bilateral trade arrangements. But, we also discussed President Trump’s commitment to treat personal protective equipment and other health care supplies, including pharmaceuticals, as strategic national assets where the supply chain needs to be located onshore in the United States. And I did speak with Taiwan leaders, both private sector as well as governmental, about the opportunities that that presents with Taiwan’s manufacturing expertise and prowess in terms of direct investment in building capacity in the United States, whether it’s to manufacture personal protective equipment or to manufacture pharmaceutical ingredients or to manufacture generic medicines that could be – that could be based in the United States for production.
Moderator: Thank you. Next if we could go to Helen Davidson from The Guardian. Helen, if you could also mention where you’re calling in from. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes, hello. Thank you, Secretary Azar, for hosting the Q&A. This is Helen Davidson from the UK’s Guardian. This is a critical time to be away from the U.S., with more than 5.1 million cases in your own country. It is also a point of the highest tensions between the U.S. and China in decades. This trip is clearly provocative to Beijing. Is that an unfortunate side effect of this visit, or is that part of the purpose? And how far does the U.S.’ support for Taiwan stretch if Beijing takes more hostile action as a result of it?
Secretary Azar: Well, as I mentioned earlier, the purpose of this trip really is to highlight the partnership between the U.S. and Taiwan across security, economic, and health care issues; to highlight Taiwan as a model of public health transparency, openness, and global engagement; and to repeat my consistent calls, and President Trump’s consistent calls, for Taiwan to be able to contribute in an appropriate way in international fora so that others may learn from Taiwan’s expertise. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. It looks like we are just about out of time. Mr. Secretary, would you like to make any final remarks?
Secretary Azar: I just want to thank everybody for calling in and asking your very thoughtful questions. We remain committed to working with Taiwan as we strive with so many partners internationally, both to deal with COVID-19, but also to ensure that the linkages are there as we think about future infectious disease and pandemics. Our position in the United States has always been that it is better to stop infectious disease off our shores, if at all possible, and that means significant, bilateral and multilateral engagement around the world.
The United States has been, and will remain, the largest funder and supporter of global health security in the world, and that’s a tradition that we will certainly be carrying forward, and we appreciate you all taking the time to be with us today on this – regarding this important trip. Thank you.
Moderator: That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and I also thank all of our journalists on the line for participating. And in particular I apologize if we were not able to get to your questions today — I know there are quite a few of you still in the question and answer queue, and I apologize for that.
Please stay on the line for information regarding access to an audio recording of the call. Also, please be aware that a transcript of the call will be posted to our social media platforms and sent out to all of you within a day. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Asia Pacific Media Hub at AsiaPacMedia@state.gov. Thank you.