Japan Panel Clears Pfizer Vaccine, With Shots to Start Next Week

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A Japanese panel signed off on Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE’s coronavirus vaccine for emergency use, paving the way for the nation to launch an inoculation effort that has faced criticism for being one of the last among developed countries.

The nod from the Ministry of Health’s advisory Pharmaceutical Affairs and Food Sanitation Council late Friday sets the stage for the government to give approval of the shot. The official notice could come as early as Feb. 14, Health Minister Norihisa Tamura told reporters Friday evening. It will be Japan’s first approval of a Covid-19 vaccine.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told a meeting of a separate virus panel that vaccinations would start from the middle of next week. Japan received its first shipment of Pfizer’s shot on Friday, according to domestic media reports.

The Japanese government has agreed with Pfizer and BioNTech for a supply of 144 million doses of the vaccine, enough for 72 million people, by the end of 2021. The shot has already been approved for emergency use in places across the globe, from the U.S. to the European Union.

More Orders

Japan also has an order for 120 million doses of a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca Plc and the University of Oxford, as well as an agreement for 50 million doses of Moderna Inc.’s shot. AstraZeneca filed for approval in Japan earlier this month. Both have also already received emergency approval in other countries.

The approval process comes as Japan is in the midst of an extended second state of emergency for much of its urban areas, as the country was hit by a winter surge of cases at the end of last year. The emergency measures appear to have begun to pay off, as new daily case numbers have halved compared to a few weeks ago.

Still, Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said Friday it’s necessary to maintain the state of emergency, as the medical system is still under strain and the number of elderly people with infections isn’t dropping.

Despite the winter flare-up, Japan has fared better than most developed nations, which is part of the reason the country has taken a slower approach in implementing its vaccine campaign. Japan has reported a total of about 412,000 infections since the beginning of the pandemic, close to what the U.S. has seen in a single day.

Tamura stressed that point Friday as he acknowledged Japan’s vaccination effort has lagged behind other countries. He added that the slower spread of the virus also limited Japan when it came to vaccine trials, and that it was important to have local trials to confirm safety. “If you look at Pfizer’s various trials, there were only a small percentage of Asians,” he said.

Several places in the Asia-Pacific region that have taken a lighter hit from the pandemic, like South Korea, Australia and Hong Kong, have also yet to start vaccinations.

Ambitious Program

The island nation is aiming to inoculate as many of its citizens as possible by the time the Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to begin this summer, with one report in January saying the country seeks to vaccinate the majority of its population by July -- a highly ambitious undertaking. A spokesman said at the time that the government couldn’t announce a schedule before the country had approved a vaccine.

Japan’s inoculation drive will start with a group of about 20,000 health-care workers, who will be observed over the course of their two shots and after, before being expanded, according to the health ministry. The elderly are also being prioritized, with vaccinations for those over the age of 65 set to start as early as April.

The Pfizer-BioNTech shot, which the companies have said is 95% effective in preventing illness, has been undergoing local clinical trials in Japan.

The vaccine is based on messenger RNA -- a new technology that essentially transforms the body’s cells into tiny vaccine-making machines, instructing cells to make copies of the coronavirus spike protein, which stimulates the production of protective antibodies.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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