TOKYO -- An unapproved vaccine for the coronavirus believed to be made in China was brought to Japan and administered to the heads of some of Japan's most famous companies and other wealthy individuals, it has emerged.
It's been reported that since November 2020, 18 people including top company members and their families have been vaccinated. The shots were brought in by a Chinese consultant with close ties to senior officials in the Communist Party of China (CCP).
While it is potentially illegal for an individual to bring a vaccine into the country from overseas with the intention of using it on anyone except themselves, a picture of the Chinese side using the inoculations as leverage to expand their influence has also become apparent.
On Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, past 6:30 p.m., the president of a major information technology firm went with his wife to a clinic in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward. Waiting in a consultation room marked as closed for the day were the head of the clinic and the man from China.
After exchanging the introductions customary in a first meeting, the president's wife asked with a hint of anxiety whether it was really safe to take the vaccine. The head of the clinic was sat with their back to them as they typed on a computer and said nothing, and in their place the Chinese man nodded and smiled.
The Chinese man the couple met at the clinic works back and forth between Japan and China, and recommended the vaccine to the company president, who he has known for 20 years. He advised them not to worry about side effects, and said that all they would have by a way of trouble is pain in their muscles where they receive the shot -- the kind of issues normally found with vaccinations. As he spoke, he handed them a clipboard with a document to confirm they agreed to have the vaccine.
The form they received had no questions asking about their medical history or the presence of allergies; it just had contents to obtain their agreement. The company president assured his wife it would be all right, and she slowly wrote the date, their names, and mobile phone numbers down on the form.
The Chinese man didn't look at them as they filled it in, and went into a neighboring room where he removed an A4-size stainless steel box from a fridge, and handed it to the head of the clinic. Inside it were bags with two vaccine syringes and a 5-milliliter vial of liquid in each. On the labels were the date and a number of words including "COVID-19" and "inactivated novel coronavirus." According to the explanation received, the shots were made by the state-owned China National Pharmaceutical Group, or Sinopharm.
The head of the clinic then put on medical gloves, and attached needles to the vials. The transparent liquid that was filled up halfway inside the receptacle descended quickly. As they applied disinfectant alcohol to the company president's arm, they said, "I was surprised to receive a call from you after a long time out of touch, but never imagined it was about this." The company president, an old friend of the clinic director, had apparently appealed to them to help with the immunization, and they had felt compelled to agree.
The pair's inoculations were finished within five minutes of them arriving at the clinic. The company president's wife smiled to her husband as she said, "Perhaps I had been too scared of a simple vaccine," and took out her purse to pay the Chinese man the 10,000 yen (about $97) per person fee for each of the shots.
The company president, who spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun on condition of anonymity, said matter-of-factly, "It's not that I was afraid of getting the coronavirus and was searching around for an unapproved vaccine, rather that I was introduced to it through a personal connection." He went on, "Perhaps by having an earlier experience of being vaccinated, it might deepen my understanding and lead to a new idea for a business venture." His next inoculation was scheduled for Jan. 3, three weeks after the first, and he reported that neither he nor his wife had experienced any side effects.
But why was a company president approached for a coronavirus vaccination? In response to the question, the Chinese man revealed, "We're not blindly offering it out to a wide range; the people we want to offer it to are already decided on."
He spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun from an apartment he uses as his base of operations in Japan, situated on a corner of the capital's Chiyoda Ward crammed with buildings housing a number of businesses and uses. He opened a file on his desktop computer called "VBFC," or "Vaccine Business For China," which includes a list of Japanese people who have received the shots.
In it are their names, their company names, the dates they were vaccinated, and their contact details. The list has 15 men and three women on it. Among them are representatives of some of Japan's marquee companies -- businesses including financial institutions, electronics manufacturers, and IT firms -- and their family members and acquaintances. Among them are businesspeople serving in economics groups, and even individuals referred to as some of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's top brains.
The first vaccination is described as taking place on Nov. 7, 2020, and was administered to a man who founded and built a major company. The Chinese man explained, "By vaccinating this person first, we were able to prove its safety, and it became a way to ease the concerns of the people who came after."
What's leading top company figures to take an allegedly Chinese-made vaccine that's yet to be approved in Japan? The president of a financial institution, who with his wife received the two shots on Nov. 22 and Dec. 19, 2020, offered some insight: "If I were to become infected with the coronavirus, it would indicate a failure in my self-control, which would be absolutely unforgivable as the manager of a company." Since spring, he's reduced the number of people he meets, but said that in his position evening dinner meetings are unavoidable. Amid his concerns, he was introduced to the Chinese man offering the vaccinations by the head of a firm he trades with.
He said it did cross his mind that doing it might be against the law, but didn't confirm the details. Reflecting on his immunization, he said, "I suppose I felt like I had to get it done even if it came with sacrifices."
As of now there's no indication that he or his wife have been infected with the coronavirus, but he did express concern, saying, "Whether it's the effect of us having crossed a bridge with a number of perils on it, or thanks to us taking the standard prevention measures of wearing masks, washing our hands and that sort of thing, I don't know."
In September 2020, the Chinese man offering the vaccines received a request from a friend who works as a high ranking official in the CCP, in which they asked him to cooperate with Chinese pharmaceutical firms to widen support for the Chinese vaccine in Japan. The vaccines were reportedly obtained from a Chinese state-owned drug maker.
But on Dec. 10, the Japanese government formally concluded a contract with U.K. firm AstraZeneca for a supply of vaccine dosages for 60 million people. Basic agreements for another 60 million dosages from U.S. drug maker Pfizer and 25 million from Moderna are also in place. Domestic producers, too, are making progress with their developments, and trust in Chinese makers is low due to insufficient transparency in clinical trial data and other information, creating difficulties for the products' entrance in Japan.
Despite this, what are the Chinese parties aiming for by offering vaccines to major figures in Japanese society? The U.S.- and European-made vaccines that Tokyo intends to purchase use cutting edge mRNA vaccines and viral vector vaccines. Excluding those used to treat the coronavirus, there are almost no approved shots using these kinds of technology, and records of its successful administration have not been accrued.
Conversely, the China-made shot is an inactivated vaccine containing virus samples that have been made to lose their infectivity. The method used to produce it is the same as has been used for conventional vaccines, and compared to the mRNA vaccines that have begun rollout in the U.S. and Europe, is cheap to store and easy to transport.
The senior official at the CCP reportedly explained their thinking is that if questions emerge around the continued efficacy of the U.S.- and Europe-made vaccines, the Japanese government may turn to China. In case of such an eventuality, they want to have laid the groundwork early.
The man providing the vaccines who interpreted mainland China's intentions said he compiled the list by picking "major figures in Japan from a variety of fields, who would have many opportunities to make statements to the government." Among the people approached, only three turned down the offer. The 18 people include some company heads that were not well known to the man, and there were reportedly times when he would ask an associate who has a senior role at a Japanese pharmaceutical firm to sit in on meetings and help obtain the target's trust.
"In 2021, I think I'll try and show my face in Nagata-cho (an area synonymous with Japan's political circle)," the Chinese man said as he showed a separate list on his computer, filled with the names of current and former Liberal Democrat Party lawmakers with connections to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
Importing medicinal products, including vaccines, is allowed only in the event that the person bringing them in intends to use them on themselves. It's highly likely that the actions of the Chinese man, who has brought in the medical products with permission to sell and assign to others, are in contravention of the pharmaceutical affairs law.
In Japan, it is possible for doctors to give inoculations from unapproved vaccines as "free treatment," but the health ministry's Pharmaceutical Safety and Environmental Health Bureau said: "It is dangerous to receive vaccines that are not managed by doctors and which are not known to really be what they claim."
(Japanese original by Takashi Narumi, Business News Department, Kosuke Hatta, Foreign News Department, and Keisuke Kawazu, China General Bureau)