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Japan races to get COVID-19 vaccinations into arms amid rapid variant spread

The first man to get vaccinated for the coronavirus in Nagano Prefecture is seen at a clinic in the prefectural village of Kitaaiki on April 12, 2021. (Photo courtesy of the Nagano Prefectural Government's infectious disease countermeasures division)

With Japan's coronavirus vaccinations for the elderly population getting underway on April 12, the focus now appears to be on a race against time for universal vaccination -- the apparent last resort for infection control -- as concerns grow over the rapid spread of COVID-19 virus variants with purportedly higher transmissibly across the country.

    Also on April 12, the government's quasi-emergency countermeasures over the coronavirus additionally went into effect in Tokyo, Kyoto and Okinawa prefectures following other areas.

    Japan's coronavirus vaccinations lag far behind other countries. According to a tally by a group of researchers at Oxford University, a mere 0.87% of Japan's entire population has been vaccinated at least once as of April 10. This is far lower than 61.35% in Israel and 35.03% in the United States. Japan now faces the question of whether it can smoothly proceed with vaccine shots for its 36 million elderly residents.

    The biggest challenge in inoculating the priority subjects in Japan is how to secure stable vaccine supplies. The Japanese government has thus far only approved U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for practical use, but its supply for the time being is limited amid global competition.

    Japan's vaccine rollout for older people will go into full swing across municipalities nationwide from May 10, and vaccine administration for the elderly is expected to be completed by the end of June. While the central government plans to move ahead with inoculations for people with underlying conditions and the general public down the road, it has been unable to specify exactly when it can start the shots.

    Even with coronavirus vaccinations for medical professionals, which got underway in February, only around 500,000 out of some 4.8 million workers eligible for the quota have so far received the second inoculation. This raises the possibility that unvaccinated health care workers could be engaged in vaccine administration for the elderly.

    As the Pfizer vaccine supply alone wouldn't be able to cover Japan's entire population, the question now is when the vaccines of U.S. pharma Moderna and Britain's AstraZeneca -- now under review for approval in Japan -- can be put into practical use.

    In an April 11 TV program aired by public broadcaster NHK, administrative reform minister Taro Kono announced that the government would scramble to adjust vaccine supplies as the amount of vaccines requested by municipalities for delivery by early May has already overtaken available doses.

    As such a large-scale vaccination program is unprecedented in Japan, the government faces a sheer lack of experience, while local bodies are also plagued by a shortage of doctors, nurses and other workers to be rounded up for vaccine administration.

    An official at the Sendai Municipal Government in northeast Japan, where the quasi-emergency measures went into effect, said, "If the number of COVID-19 patients admitted to large medical institutions spikes, it could be difficult to secure enough health care workers to be engaged in vaccinations."

    In west Japan's Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, another quasi-emergency area, a city official pointed out that "the possibility we may face difficulties securing doctors is not zero." The official added, "We cannot fully predict whether more people would want to get vaccinated early due to the spread of infections, or more people would rather refrain from inoculations."

    The city of Amagasaki, also in Hyogo Prefecture, is planning to implement group vaccinations at public facilities. A city official, however, commented, "If the spread of infections continues at this rate, we may possibly have to reduce the number of people to be assembled for group vaccinations."

    At a meeting of the House of Representatives' Committee on Audit and Oversight of Administration on April 12, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced, "I would like to request the Self-Defense Forces to administer vaccinations." The government plans to dispatch SDF personnel with medical and nursing licenses to give vaccine doses as necessary.

    (Japanese original by Ai Yokota, Lifestyle and Medical News Department, Hana Fujita, Sendai Bureau, and Kiyomasa Nakamura, Hanshin Bureau)

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