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Pfizer to be Japan's main vaccine distributor for time being as competitors face setbacks

Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine are seen at a vaccination site at the Corsi Houses, on Jan. 15, 2021, in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

TOKYO -- Japan's government is scrambling to respond to a derailment in its plan to acquire coronavirus vaccines as clinical trial delays and other setbacks concerning two of the three pharmaceutical giants' products make it unlikely they will be put to practical use in Japan until spring.

    Under the circumstances, the Japanese government has increased its procured vaccine amount by 24 million doses in its contract with US pharma Pfizer Inc. finalized on Jan. 20. While a senior official at Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has stressed that the country will be able to secure "just enough" vaccines to meet its initial rollout plan without delay, Japan will have no choice but to depend on Pfizer's product for the time being.

    The Japanese government on Jan. 20 reached a final agreement with Pfizer to procure 144 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine within the year. Taking this accord into account, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga emphasized that Japan "expects to secure 310 million doses overall" during a House of Councillors plenary session the next day. As the vaccine is supposed to be administered twice to one person, the procured amount is intended to exceed Japan's population.

    When the government reached a basic agreement with the American pharmaceuticals firm in July 2020, the accord said Japan would receive 120 million doses by the end of June 2021. The content of the final agreement was changed to 144 million doses by the end of 2021.

    Several sources connected to the government told the Mainichi Shimbun that the request for additional amounts was made amid the prospect that Japan would not soon be receiving products at an early stage from the other two vaccine manufacturers -- Britain's AstraZeneca Plc and US manufacturer Moderna Inc.

    The extension to the period for vaccine provision was apparently requested by Pfizer, who didn't want the move to be interpreted as the company giving priority to Japan amid global competition to procure coronavirus vaccines.

    With AstraZeneca, meanwhile, the Japanese government concluded in December last year that the country would receive 120 million doses. The government had explained that 30 million vaccine doses from this consignment would be provided by March this year.

    But during the final stages of clinical trials in the U.K. and other locations, unforeseen issues arose, such as the required dosage turning out to be different from the amount planned.

    While AstraZeneca's product was approved in the U.K., it's still under trial in the United States. According to Reuters, a U.S. government source stated at the end of 2020 that AstraZeneca's vaccine is likely to receive U.S. approval in April.

    The Japanese government is poised for Washington's decision, and an internal source said the stance makes it "highly likely" provisions of the vaccine will be later than originally planned.

    Meanwhile, Tokyo has agreed with Moderna to receive 40 million doses by the end of June and 10 million by the end of September. Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Ltd., a Japanese pharma in charge of domestic distribution, announced on Jan. 21 that it has launched the initial stages of a clinical trial in Japan.

    While the company says it will file for approval with the health ministry in May and aims to start the distribution by June, putting the vaccine to practical use at an early date appears difficult.

    The Japanese government is hastily making preparations for Pfizer's vaccine on the assumption that it will be approved domestically in mid-February and rollout will start from the end of the month. The health ministry estimates some 57.7 million people will be subject to prioritized vaccinations. Vaccine administration for prioritized groups is expected to continue at least until May, meaning that a majority of them will be receiving Pfizer's jab.

    (Ai Yokota and Ryosuke Abe, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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