TOKYO (AP) – Japan launched its coronavirus vaccination campaign on Wednesday, months after other major economies started giving injections and amid doubts about whether the campaign would reach people quickly enough to save the Summer Olympics already delayed by the pandemic.
Despite a recent rise in infections, Japan has largely avoided the kind of cataclysm that has hit other economies, social networks and health systems. But the fate of the Olympics and the billions of dollars at stake make Japan’s vaccine campaign crucial. Japanese officials are also aware that rival China, which has succeeded in fighting the virus, will host the Winter Olympics next year, increasing the desire to make the Tokyo Games happen.
Japan’s launch lagged behind other places because it asked vaccine maker Pfizer to conduct clinical trials with Japanese people, in addition to tests already carried out in six other nations – part of an effort to address concerns in a country with low confidence in the vaccine.
This long-standing reluctance to take vaccines – often out of fear of rare side effects – as well as concerns about the scarcity of imported vaccines now hang over the launch, which will first give vaccines to healthcare professionals, then to the elderly and vulnerable And then, possibly in late spring or early summer, the rest of the population.
Doctors say vaccines will help protect them and their families, and business leaders hope the initiative will allow economic activity to return to normal. But late implementation will make it impossible to achieve so-called herd immunity in the country of 127 million people before the Olympics start in July, experts say.
This will leave authorities struggling to repress widespread caution – and even direct opposition – among citizens about hosting the Games. About 80% of respondents in recent media polls support the cancellation or postponement of the Olympics.
Despite this, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and others in his government are moving forward with Olympic plans, calling the Games “a testament to human victory against the pandemic”.
Japan did not see the massive outbreaks that hit the United States and many European countries, but an increase in cases in December and January raised concerns and led to a partial state of emergency that included orders for restaurants and bars to close earlier. Suga saw his support drop to less than 40% from around 70% when he took office in September, with many people saying he was too slow to impose restrictions and were too flexible.
The country is now seeing an average of about 1 infection per 100,000 people – compared to 24.5 in the United States or 18 in the United Kingdom. Overall, Japan reported about 420,000 cases and 7,000 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
In a room full of journalists on Wednesday, Dr. Kazuhiro Araki, president of Tokyo Medical Center, rolled up his sleeve and got an injection, one of the first Japanese to do so.
“It didn’t hurt at all and I’m feeling very relieved,” he told reporters while being monitored for any allergic reactions. “We now have better protection and I hope that we will feel more comfortable providing medical treatment.”
About 40,000 doctors and nurses considered vulnerable to the virus because they treat patients with COVID-19 are in the first group to be vaccinated with vaccines developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech – after the vaccine was authorized on Sunday by the Japanese regulator. It requires two doses, although some protection starts after the first injection.
Japan’s late authorization of the vaccine means that it is lagging behind many other countries. Britain started vaccines on December 8 and gave at least one injection to more than 15 million people, while the United States began its campaign on December 14 and about 40 million people received injections. Vaccines were launched in many European Union countries in late December and campaigns were criticized for being slower.
But Japan’s vaccine minister, Taro Kono, defended the delay as necessary to build confidence in a country where mistrust of vaccines has existed for decades. Many people have vague concerns about vaccines, in part because their side effects are often reported in the media here.
“I think it is more important for the Japanese government to show the Japanese people that we have done everything possible to prove the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine to encourage the Japanese people to take it,” said Kono. “So, at the end of the day, we may have started more slowly, but we think it will be more effective.
Half of those who received their first injections will keep daily records of their condition for seven weeks; these data will be used in a health study designed to inform people concerned about side effects. Studies of tens of thousands of people with the Pfizer vaccine – and others currently administered in other countries – have found no serious side effects.
“We would like to make efforts so that people can be vaccinated with peace of mind,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters.
The development of a Japanese vaccine COVID-19 is still in its early stages, so the country, like many others, must depend on imported vaccines – raising concerns about supply problems seen elsewhere as producers struggle to keep up with demand. Suga on Wednesday recognized the importance of strengthening vaccine development and production capacity as “major crisis management” and pledged to provide more support.
The supplies will help determine the progress of the vaccination campaign in Japan, said Kono.
The first batch of vaccines from Pfizer that arrived Friday is enough to cover the first group of medical professionals. A second batch will be delivered next week.
To get the most out of each vial, Japanese authorities are also struggling to get specialized syringes that can draw six doses per vial, instead of five for standard Japanese syringes.
After the front line, health professionals will see inoculations of 3.7 million health professionals starting in March, followed by about 36 million people aged 65 and over starting in April. People with underlying health problems, as well as caregivers in nursing homes and other facilities, will be next, before the general population takes their turn.
Some critics noted that the vaccination campaign – which requires medical professionals – increases its burden, since Japanese hospitals are already overwhelmed with the daily treatment of patients with COVID-19. There is an additional concern that hospitals will not have the additional capacity to handle the large number of foreign visitors that the Olympics would involve.