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Japan health panel backs AstraZeneca COVID vaccine for ages 40, over

Experts on a Japanese health ministry panel hold discussions on the AstraZeneca vaccine in Tokyo during a meeting on July 30, 2021. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A Japanese health ministry panel on Friday approved the domestic use of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Britain's AstraZeneca Plc for people aged 40 and over in principle amid a supply shortage of vaccines.

    The government will supply the vaccine to local governments depending on their needs, while planning to conduct safety research, possibly by Self-Defense Forces personnel, due to lingering concerns over rare side effects.

    The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare granted fast-track approval for the AstraZeneca vaccine in May, but the government withheld supplying the doses, taking into consideration reported rare cases of blood clots among young people overseas.

    In Britain, a government advisory body recommended people under 40 years of age to get an alternative to the AstraZeneca vaccine based on rare cases of blood clots and low platelet count.

    Although Japan has not supplied the AstraZeneca vaccine domestically, the government has been donating the vaccine to such countries as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

    Japan's inoculation drive currently employs the vaccines developed by U.S. pharmaceutical companies Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc.

    Also on Friday, the ministry panel agreed to expand the eligible age range for the Moderna vaccine from people aged 18 and older to those aged 12 years and older.

    The Moderna vaccine had been used in vaccination programs at workplaces but hit a supply bottleneck, and the central government's supplies of the Pfizer vaccine have not been able to meet the pace of local governments' inoculations.

    Faced with criticism over its sluggish vaccine rollout, the government apparently shifted toward approving the practical use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for people aged 40 and older, after having planned to supply the doses for only those aged 60 or older.

    Compared with the vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna, which must be kept in freezers at temperatures as low as around minus 75 C, the AstraZeneca shot has the advantage of being storable in refrigerators between 2 and 8 C.

    AstraZeneca licensed Japanese biotechnology company JCR Pharmaceuticals Co. to produce some doses, making it easier for Japan to supply the vaccine in the country.

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