Japan denies considering vaccine priority for Olympic athletes

New infections have spiked ahead of the Tokyo Games, which are set to start in July

Women pass a protester joining a rally in front of a building housing the Organising Committee of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games to demand the Games' cancellation and to denounce comments made by Tokyo 2020 Olympics chief Yoshiro Mori in Tokyo, Japan, February 12, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Japan said on Thursday it was not considering prioritising Covid-19 vaccines for Olympic athletes, dismissing a media report that sparked a social media outcry.

Japan lags far behind other major economies in terms of inoculations. Only a million people have received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine since February, out of Japan's population of 126 million. The more vulnerable elderly do not even start getting their shots until next week.

New infections have spiked ahead of the Olympics, which are set to start in July. Tokyo saw 545 new cases on Thursday and its governor said she would ask the central government to impose emergency measures in the capital region.

According to government officials quoted by Kyodo news agency on Wednesday, Japan has begun looking into the possibility of making sure its Olympic and Paralympic athletes are all vaccinated by the end of June.

The report provoked outrage on social media.

"Give it to my mother first," one Twitter user wrote, adding: "Athletes are all young and healthy."

The outrage on social media continued despite chief cabinet secretary Katsunobu Kato denying the report and saying that the government was not looking to give priority to athletes.

Many noted that Japan's original plan gives priority to medical workers, the elderly and those with chronic conditions, with ordinary citizens unlikely to get theirs before the summer.

While the government has said it will push ahead with the Olympics as planned from July 23, a vast majority of Japanese public want the Games to be cancelled or postponed again.

A number of test events for some sports have recently been cancelled or postponed due to concerns about the pandemic, and on Tuesday leading business executive Hiroshi Mikitani wrote on Twitter that holding the Games was "risky".

"Honestly, I feel that the Olympics this summer are just far too risky. I am against them," wrote Mikitani, the CEO of Japanese e-commerce group Rakuten Inc.

Even so, much of corporate Japan is still mobilised behind the Olympics. Atsushi Katsuki, the CEO of Asahi Group, said he stood by holding the Games and that the leading beverage maker had benefited from being a sponsor.

"I want the Olympics and Paralympic Games to be held," Katsuki said in an interview with Reuters.

"It's unfortunate that the Olympics have been scaled down, but we're not too concerned about that," he added.