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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 4 March 2021

Japan aims to vaccinate most of the country before Olympics

Delayed Tokyo 2020 Games scheduled to begin in July 2021

People wearing protective masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus in the Shibuya area of Tokyo. AP
People wearing protective masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus in the Shibuya area of Tokyo. AP

Japan plans to vaccinate most of its population against Covid-19 by July, according to a report, meaning most of its 125 million residents could be inoculated by the time the Tokyo Olympics begin.

The country plans to complete vaccination of 50 million people in high-priority tiers, including the elderly and healthcare workers, by April, according to the Yomiuri newspaper. Japan then plans to begin inoculation of the general public as early as May, depending on the availability of doses, the report said.

The Health Ministry could not confirm the report when contacted by Bloomberg News. Taro Kono, who was appointed by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Monday as minister in charge of the vaccine plan, on Twitter appeared to pour cold water on various other reports of possible time frames.

“I just took charge of vaccines yesterday and am not yet envisaging this today,” he wrote in response to a Kyodo story on the plan to start inoculation of the general public in May. He also called a report by broadcaster NHK on the vaccination schedule irresponsible.

The Yomiuri report is an early indication of how Japan, which is facing its biggest wave of infections, may introduce vaccines to the general population. Mr Suga said he aims to begin the country’s vaccination programme in late February, starting with frontline medical workers.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga holds a New Year's press conference at his official residence in Tokyo Monday, January 4, 2021. AP
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga holds a New Year's press conference at his official residence in Tokyo Monday, January 4, 2021. AP

The government is emphasising that vaccination is not a prerequisite for holding the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to start in July after a year’s delay. Surging cases in Japan and elsewhere and new strains of the virus have cast doubt on the country’s ability to hold the Games as planned.

The schedule laid out in the Yomiuri report would represent a hugely ambitious plan. Vaccinating the 50 million in the high-priority tiers – the elderly, medical workers and those with underlying conditions – would require more than 800,000 doses to be administered each day.

Such a plan would keep pace with an aggressive programme in China, which in December set out to inoculate 50 million people against the virus in about a two-month span before the annual Lunar New Year holiday.

Other countries have also set goals to reach herd immunity, which occurs when a large portion of a community becomes immune to a disease.

South Korea’s president said this week the country may reach herd immunity by November at the latest. In the US, Dr Anthony Fauci said that level will probably happen during the summer, with a return to normality by the end of the year.

Japan, which has plans to provide vaccines free, is working to approve Pfizer’s shot in the middle of February, Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said last week. Vaccines will not be given to the more than 18 million children under 16 until more trial data on that age group is available, according to Yomiuri.

Japan has a contract for 120 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by the end of June. Pfizer is the only company so far to have applied for emergency approval for its vaccine in Japan, but the country also has contracts with Moderna, AstraZeneca and Novavax.

Japan’s plan faces many potential obstacles, among them a public cautious about receiving a vaccine so soon. An NNN/Yomiuri poll in December found that while most people wanted to get the vaccine eventually, only 15 per cent wanted to take it soon, with a further 15 per cent saying they did not want it at all.

Updated: January 20, 2021 03:07 PM

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