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Japan gov't averting criticism with early inoculation for small number of elderly in mid-April

A COVID-19 vaccination drill takes place at the Shibukawa civic hall in Gunma Prefecture on Feb. 24, 2021. (Mainichi/Tetsuya Shoji)

TOKYO -- While priority vaccinations against the coronavirus will start for elderly people aged 65 and older in some parts of Japan on April 12, it appears that the number of those to receive the vaccine will remain very low in the early stages.

    There are no prospects of a stable supply of COVID-19 vaccines from overseas, and it is estimated that full-scale vaccinations for elderly individuals nationwide will begin in the week starting on April 26. The Japanese government has taken particular care to begin inoculations during the month of April to avoid criticism over the slight delay from the originally scheduled start to vaccinations for the elderly on April 1 at the earliest, amid a rise in the public's interest and expectations surrounding the vaccine.

    Japan's Minister in charge of Administrative Reform Taro Kono argued emphatically against a statement made by Yuichi Goto of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, who claimed that the national government has not settled on the schedule and methods for vaccination, during a House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting on Feb. 25.

    Kono pushed back, saying, "It's not something that can be achieved by fulfilling what was initially decided by treating it as if it were a golden rule."

    It has been revealed that vaccinations of health care workers, which precede inoculations for the elderly, will be conducted on around 4.7 million individuals -- some 1 million more than the number originally envisioned. Therefore, early attempts at vaccinations for the elderly set to begin on April 12 will inevitably overlap with the second round of vaccinations for health care workers and other individuals.

    However, a sense of relief pervades the national government as it was able to present an April-start schedule regarding vaccinations for some elderly individuals and vaccine shipments to all municipalities nationwide. In a Feb. 24 press conference, Kono expressed his satisfaction with being able to roll out vaccines in April.

    Yet only up to around 50,000 people among some 36 million elderly individuals will be able to receive vaccines on April 12. Even if vaccines are distributed to all municipalities from Feb. 26, whether vaccinations progress depends on each local government's preparation level. During the budget committee session, Kono said, "There are all sorts of differences in speed among local governments. There are differences in geographical conditions, population and other factors, and I'd like to leave it to the discretion of each municipality."

    Whether Japan will be able to obtain sufficient supply of vaccines from U.S. major pharmaceutical company Pfizer, and whether it will be able to gain consent from the European Union (EU), which has imposed export controls on COVID-19 vaccines, are also elements of concern. The Japanese government will handle the issue by using a backup supply reserved to prevent an exhaustion of vaccines following the rollout to cover for the increased shots to health care workers. The trial vaccinations for the elderly ahead of a full-scale rollout will also be carried out as a means to tackle the short supply.

    A senior official of the Cabinet Office said, "Pfizer has strengthened its production system, and if we manage to get through April, a fair supply can be expected for May." However, the Japanese government has only gained EU approval for vaccines arriving in a third bundle on March 1, and the total of procured vaccines, including the first and second bundles which have already arrived, can cover inoculations for only around 690,000 people. Although a further supply of vaccines covering around 900,000 individuals is estimated to arrive during March, it is unclear when vaccinations for around 4.7 million medical professionals and other individuals will end. Concerns still remain over whether vaccinations for the elderly will become full-fledged at the end of April.

    (Japanese original by Yusuke Tanabe, Political News Department)

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