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News Navigator: Why is Japan's coronavirus vaccination rate so low?

A bottle of U.S. drugmaker Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine is seen in the city of Fukuoka on April 15, 2021. (Mainichi/Tomohisa Yazu)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about Japan's low coronavirus vaccination rate compared to some other countries.

    Question: What is the vaccination status around the world like?

    Answer: According to "Our World in Data," a website operated by researchers at the University of Oxford in the U.K., as of April 28 the number of vaccinations per 100 people was 121.09 in Israel, 105.82 in the United Arab Emirates, 70.91 in Britain, and 2.55 in Japan.

    Q: Why is Japan's vaccination rate so low?

    A: In addition to a shortage of medical workers such as doctors and nurses who inject vaccines, it is believed that the Japanese people's negative views on the safety of vaccines and their effectiveness compared to people in other countries form one reason. Another suspected factor is that Japan has relied on foreign countries for vaccine supplies.

    Q: Aren't there any vaccines produced domestically?

    A: In Japan, people used to be obligated to get inoculations, but as side effects became a social issue, these measures were eased under a revision of the Immunization Act in 1994 so that people were only "obliged to make an effort" to get vaccinations. As a result, demand for domestic vaccines plunged, and major pharmaceutical companies withdrew from the market. Compared to some countries such as the United States that were able to swiftly develop COVID-19 vaccines by applying new technologies, Japan started late. The Japanese government plans to accelerate inoculations by setting up large-scale vaccination centers in Tokyo and Osaka this month.

    Q: When will domestic vaccines be produced?

    A: Although pharmaceutical firms including Daiichi Sankyo Co. and Shionogi & Co. are proceeding with developing vaccines, it has not been confirmed exactly when they will complete development. As for the practical implementation of vaccines, "clinical trials," under which inoculations are used on humans to ensure their safety, are needed. Eventually it will be necessary for a large number of people to participate in clinical trials, but it is becoming difficult to attract participants. While unimmunized people are needed for clinical trials, the number of such people decreases as vaccinations proceed.

    Q: What kind of coronavirus vaccines are available in Japan?

    A: The only vaccine approved in Japan is U.S. drugmaker Pfizer Inc.'s mRNA vaccine. On the surface of the coronavirus are "spike proteins," which infect human cells. Vaccines cause the body to produce spike proteins. And making human bodies memorize the protein's characteristics triggers the production of virus-attacking antibodies.

    Q: Aren't there any other vaccines available now in Japan?

    A: No. There are two other vaccines -- one developed by U.S. company Moderna Inc. and the other by Britain's AstraZeneca Plc -- listed in government contracts to secure supplies, but they are still awaiting approval.

    (Japanese original by Yuki Nakagawa, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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