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Japan starts administering COVID booster shots amid omicron concerns

This photo shows syringes for Pfizer Inc.'s coronavirus vaccines in Sapporo's Atsubetsu Ward on May 24, 2021. (Mainichi/Taichi Kaizuka)

TOKYO -- Japan started the administration of COVID-19 booster shots across the country on the morning of Dec. 1 for those who have received their second injections.

    The booster shot aims to prolong the effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines, which declines over time, and in principle, people over the age of 18 who have received their second shot at least eight months ago can be vaccinated. The rollout began despite uncertainties over current vaccines' effectiveness against the new omicron variant, which is spreading worldwide.

    At Tokyo Medical Center, operated in the capital's Meguro Ward by the National Hospital Organization, 18 doctors and nurses who got their second dose in advance this spring received their third doses of the Pfizer Inc. vaccines. Hospital director Kazuhiro Araki, who was the first to be inoculated, said to reporters, "I'm very relieved that the administration of third booster shots has started smoothly. A very important step in getting patients and families to visit (the hospital) with ease has begun."

    Vaccination minister Noriko Horiuchi, who observed the shots being administered, said she "would like to refrain from commenting" on the effectiveness of the vaccines against the omicron variant, which is currently being examined by experts. With the conventional coronavirus strain in mind, she stressed that "the third booster shot is beneficial."

    Many of the countries, including the United States and those in Europe, where booster shots are already underway, have decided to administer the third dose after about six months from the second one. Following the confirmation of the omicron strain, the U.K, has moved up the six-month interval to three months.

    Meanwhile, it is not known how effective the vaccines in practical use are against the omicron strain, and pharmaceutical companies and national governments across the globe are proceeding with analyses of the mutant strain.

    The Japanese government has set the interval at "eight months in principle" bearing in mind the rollout system among local governments and vaccine supply. However, depending on the infection status and future developments regarding the effectiveness of COVID shots, calls for a review of the interval period may increase.

    The Japanese government has signed a procurement contract with Pfizer for 120 million doses and Moderna Inc. for 50 million doses of the booster shots. For the time being, Japan will administer the Pfizer ones, which have been approved for the booster shots. The Moderna vaccine will also be examined by the end of December, and are expected to be used from February next year.

    Regardless of the type of vaccine administered for the first and second doses, people can receive whichever -- Pfizer or Moderna -- vaccines for their third shot.

    According to the prime minister's office, some 97 million people have received their second COVID vaccines as of Nov. 30. Although the administration of the booster shots is limited to medical staff during December, it will gradually expand to include elderly people and the general public from January 2022, and to workplace vaccinations from March.

    Based on the records of the first and second doses, most people will receive their third booster shots between March and April next year, and it is expected that more than 20 million people will be subject for the additional COVID vaccines. The Japanese government has set the period for people to receive the free third booster shots up to the end of September next year.

    (Japanese original by Ai Yokota, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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