By Yimou Lee and Ben Blanchard
TAIPEI -Foxconn and its billionaire founder Terry Gou sought permission from Taiwan's government on Tuesday to buy COVID-19 vaccines from Germany's BioNTech SE 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, Moderna Inc 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 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.
Neither Fosun nor China's Taiwan Affairs Office responded to a request for comment on Foxconn and Gou's plans.
China, which sees Taiwan as its own territory, says Taiwan's government has gone against commercial principles in seeking to bypass Fosun and go directly to BioNTech.
Outside of Greater China, BioNTech has partnered with Pfizer Inc.
Taiwan's Buddha Light International Association has also proposed importing up to 500,000 shots of Johnson & Johnson's 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.
"The government's attitude is positive," Chao said.
Johnson & Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.
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; Additional reporting by Beijing newsroom; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)