Japan launched its coronavirus vaccination campaign on Wednesday, months after other major economies started giving vaccines and amid questions about whether the campaign will reach enough people quickly enough to save the Summer Olympics, which have already been delayed by the pandemic.
Despite the recent spike in the number of infections, Japan has largely avoided the kind of catastrophe that has ravaged other rich country economies, social networks and health care systems. But the Olympics’ fate, with billions of dollars at stake, makes the Japanese vaccine campaign crucial. Japanese officials are well aware that rival China, which has successfully beaten the virus, will host the Winter Olympics next year, adding to the desire for the Tokyo Games.
Japan’s offering was delayed elsewhere Because it asked vaccine maker Pfizer to conduct clinical trials with the Japanese, in addition to the tests already conducted in six other countries – as part of an effort to address concerns in a country that has low confidence in the vaccine.
This long reluctance to take vaccinations – usually due to concerns about rare side effects – as well as concerns about the shortage of imported vaccines are now fluctuating at all, which will give injections first to medical workers, then the elderly and frail, and then, perhaps in late spring or early summer, The rest of the population.
Medical workers say vaccines will help and protect them and their families, and business leaders hope the campaign will allow economic activity to return to normal. But experts say the late publication will make it impossible to reach so-called herd immunity in the country of 127 million people before the Olympics start in July.
That would leave officials struggling to appease widespread caution – and even outright opposition – among the citizens to host the Games. Around 80% of those polled in recent media polls support the cancellation or postponement of the Olympics.
Despite this, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and others in his government are moving forward with the Olympic plans, describing the games as “evidence of man’s victory over the epidemic.”
Japan has not experienced the massive outbreak that has ravaged the United States and many European countries, but the spike in cases in December and January raised concerns and led to a partial emergency that includes requests to close early restaurants and bars. Suga saw his support drop below 40% from around 70% when he took office in September, with many people saying he was too slow to impose restrictions and were too lenient.
The country is now seeing an infection rate of 1 per 100,000 people – compared to 24.5 in the US or 18 in the UK. Overall, Japan has recorded about 420,000 cases and 7,000 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
In a room full of reporters on Wednesday, Dr. Kazuhiro Araki, head of the Tokyo Medical Center, lifted his sleeve and got a bullet, one of the first Japanese to do so.
“He was not hurt at all and I feel very comfortable,” he told reporters while he was being monitored for any allergic reaction. “We now have better protection, and I hope we will feel more comfortable because we are providing medical treatment.”
There are about 40,000 doctors and nurses considered vulnerable to the virus because they treat COVID-19 patients who are in the first group to be vaccinated with vaccines developed by Pfizer and its German-based partner BioNTech – after the vaccine was approved Sunday by the Japanese regulator. It requires two doses, although some protection begins after the first shot.
Japan’s late licensing of a vaccine means it lags behind many other countries. Britain began the vaccination on December 8 and gave at least one injection to more than 15 million people, while the United States began its campaign on December 14 and about 40 million people received shots. Vaccines were rolled out in several European Union countries in late December, and campaigns there have been criticized for being slower.
But Japan’s Vaccine Minister, Taro Kono, defended the delay as essential to building confidence in a country where vaccine mistrust has reached decades. Many people feel vaguely uncomfortable about vaccines, in part because side effects are often manipulated by the media here.
“I think it is very important for the Japanese government to show the Japanese people that we have done everything in our power to prove the efficacy and safety of the vaccine to encourage the Japanese people to get the vaccine,” Kono said. “So at the end of the day we might have started slower, but we think it will be more effective.
Half of first shot recipients will keep daily records of their condition for seven weeks; This data will be used in a health study aimed at informing people concerned about side effects. Studies of tens of thousands of people who took Pfizer – and other vaccines currently being given in other countries – found no serious side effects.
“We would like to make efforts so that people are vaccinated with peace of mind,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters.
The development of a Japanese COVID-19 vaccine is still in its early stages, so the country, like many others, must rely on imported shots – raising concerns about the supply issues we see elsewhere as producers struggle to keep up with demand. On Wednesday, Suga recognized the importance of enhancing vaccine development and production capacity as an “important crisis management” and pledged more support.
Kono said the supplies will help determine the progress of the vaccination campaign in Japan.
The first batch of Pfizer vaccines that arrived on Friday is sufficient to cover the first group of medical workers. A second batch is set for delivery next week.
To get the most out of each vial, Japanese officials are also scrambling to acquire specialty syringes that can pull out six doses per vial instead of five with standard Japanese-made syringes.
With frontline medical workers vaccinating an additional 3.7 million health workers starting in March, followed by nearly 36 million people aged 65 and over beginning in April. People with underlying health problems, as well as caregivers in nursing homes and other facilities, will be next, before the general population takes their turn.
Some critics have noted that the vaccination campaign – which requires medical personnel to be implemented – is adding to their burden, because Japanese hospitals are already under the stress of daily treatment for COVID-19 patients. There is an additional concern that hospitals will not have additional capacity to handle the large number of foreign visitors that will be included in the Olympics.