Taiwan Model for Combating COVID-19: Exclusive Interview with Dr. Chen Chien-Jen

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“I thought that I could rest assured to return to Academia Sinica after the presidential election on January 11, 2020. But the COVID-19 outbreak happened!” said the Vice President at the time, Dr. Chen Chien-Jen, who has lead Taiwan to fight against SARS in 2003.

Facing the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Chen takes responsibility and stands at the frontline again to protect the country from the virus. Taiwan CDC also set a model for epidemic prevention to the world under Dr. Chen’s supervision.

After stepping down from the position of Vice President, the former Vice President Chen has returned to his academic life as Professor Chen in Academia Sinica and has become even busier with international seminar and interview invitations. On the day MOST GASE’s team visited Dr. Chen, he was editing a science picture book about COVID-19.

Dr. Chen took some time out of his busy schedule to have an interview with MOST GASE to share with us Taiwan’s democracy and innovation model on epidemic prevention.

Taiwan, the “Lone Wolf” that blocked the virus during the pandemic

Dr. Chen has a background in public health and has epidemic prevention experience during SARS. When facing COVID-19, President Tsai Ing-Wen asked for his advice on epidemic prevention and wish to learn from the lesson on the SARS outbreak.

Dr. Chen pointed out that during the SARS outbreak, there was a shortage of masks and the self-quarantine rule at the time was not strict. With the previous epidemic prevention experience, Dr. Chen told President Tsai that we need more comprehensive isolation and quarantine rule as there are some reported COVID-19 cases are without symptoms. Therefore, “mask production team”, “national IoT team”, and “national medical team” are convened by the government and have developed early prevention measures with Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC).

SARS outbreak has changed Taiwan’s public health and epidemic prevention system. The more comprehensive public health system and new technologies are keys to Taiwan’s pandemic control. Meanwhile, Dr. Chen believes that with the nationals’ cooperation on wearing masks, self-quarantine, and self-isolation, every Taiwanese is the hero in the combat with COVID-19. He jokingly said, “Taiwan has become the lone wolf during the pandemic because we keep normalcy under COVID-19.”

The lack of face masks, taxi driver contracted COVID-19 make Dr. Chen worried

Dr. Chen’s plan after the presidential election on January 11, 2020, was to have some relaxation time before returning to Academia Sinica after stepping down. However, the COVID-19 outbreak happened and the government convened CECC on January 20th and set up border control and quarantine rules for epidemic prevention.

Recalling the beginning of the pandemic, there are a few moments that made Dr. Chen very nervous, such as the lack of masks, a family that contracted COVID-19 in Italy, and the taxi driver who tested positive for COVID-19. Luckily, CECC solved these incidents well in the end.

Dr. Chen said that the most important things about epidemic prevention are tracking and tracing. He took the family that contracted COVID-19 in Italy as an example. During January and February 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak had not happened in Italy yet, but the Taiwanese family was tested positive after returning from Italy. At that time, people were worried that these are local contracted cases. After tracking and tracing, it was confirmed that they contracted COVID-19 on the airplane, which shows that enclose spaces like plane cabin could cause high infection risk.

At the beginning of the outbreak in 2020, the public is panic stocking masks and worried about the pandemic. Dr. Chen was thinking, “it is crucial to maintain the availability of affordable personal protective equipment for everyone.” Therefore, he filmed videos to teach people the correct way to wear masks and asked Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister, to develop an online mask map for the public to check how many masks in stock in the neighborhood to ease the public panic.

The pandemic’s impact on global economic and technology

A year has passed since the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic has strongly impacted our lives, but it has also accelerated the development of medicine and technology. For example, remote technology, digital technology, and smart technology have changed the form of telehealth and distance learning and reformed the global industrial supply chain.

Dr. Chen believes, “in the future, zero-touch economy, zero-distance innovation, and zero-infection risk will become the new norm of epidemic prevention and the technology industry. Taiwan can start a new era in the health industry, precision health, digital technology, and biomedicine industry.”

Recently, many countries have launched their COVID-19 vaccination programs. Dr. Chen stated that Taiwan is now purchasing vaccines from other countries and the development of our local vaccine is in its second stage of clinical trial. He emphasized that the vaccine industry is as vital as the national defense industry, so it is important for a country to have its own vaccine production. Dr. Chen said, “COVID-19 will not disappear from the earth. In the future, it might continue to mutate to COVID-23 or COVID-25, but we can get ready to face it if we have our national-made vaccine.”

Dr. Chen estimated that COVID-19 will start to ebb this summer. Although we might not go back to the good old days, we can face new normal days with epidemic prevention knowledge in mind.

Technology innovation and humanistic care set the model on epidemic prevention

Taiwan has earned international praises with our successful epidemic prevention measures and has been showing the world “Taiwan can help” by donating medical equipment, such as masks, protective clothing, ventilators, and other personal protection equipment. Dr. Chen proudly said that countries around the world, such as the US, Germany, Poland, and the UK signed science and technology MOUs with us after seeing the success of the Taiwan model for combating COVID-19. Moreover, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen was nominated “Time 100 The Most Influential People” and widely reported in international media, such as Bloomberg and the Economist.

At the end of the interview, Dr. Chen said that COVID-19 can be seen as the biggest challenge in this era, but we have to keep in mind that every cloud has a silver lining. Many people were separated from their loved ones under the pandemic, but we have also seen the beauty of humanity through mutual help and international collaboration. Also, the pandemic has stimulated us to advance all sorts of biomedicine development and digital transformation.

Dr. Chen emphasized that the Taiwan model has shown that democracy, freedom, rule of law, and transparency are useful in epidemic prevention and can ensure the stability of society. During the pandemic, we have also seen that humanity, courage, and kindness can lead us to overcome all the barriers. “Taiwan will become more confident, more democratic, and more united to face all kinds of challenges in the future!”


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