Japan Pushes Up Its Vaccination Start, Though Supply Isn’t Yet Secured

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Even as Japan prepares to start its Covid-19 vaccine drive within weeks, supply concerns are clouding a timeline that officials for the first time acknowledged was running behind peers.

The exact schedule of when vaccines can be supplied to Japan can’t be guaranteed amid the ongoing European Union export controls and reports of delays in production, Taro Kono, the administrative reform minister who is heading the vaccine rollout, told reporters on Tuesday.

“We’re discussing various scenarios with the EU and asking them to prioritize us” in order to meet the vaccination timeline, Kono said. “The supply schedule to Japan has not been set.”

Despite the lack of clarity over supply, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga nudged forward the country’s vaccination timeline shortly after Kono spoke. Frontline healthcare workers will now be inoculated starting in the middle of February, he said at a press conference Tuesday, having previously stated doses would begin later this month.

Local media have said Japan will decide on approving Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE’s shot on Feb. 12, making it the first vaccine to receive approval in the country. FNN reported Tuesday that Japan could receive its first shipment from Pfizer as early as Feb. 14, though Kono declined to comment on this schedule citing security concerns.

With the country having just extended its state of emergency, Japan has come under increasing scrutiny for being among the latest developed countries to start a vaccination program. Japan has signed deals for 144 million doses from Pfizer, 120 million from AstraZeneca Plc and 50 million from Moderna Inc., though only AstraZeneca’s vaccine will be manufactured locally.

‘Organizational Strength’

Suga acknowledged Tuesday that the country has been slow to begin its rollout despite having been quick to negotiate supply deals, attributing the delays to bureaucratic processes and a cautious approach. Japan requires additional local safety trials before approval.

“It is a fact that Japan is behind other countries in starting vaccinations,” Suga said. “Once we get started, we aim to use Japan’s organizational strength to vaccinate many people on a level with other countries.”

In a briefing Tuesday, BioNTech declined to say when supply would be shipped to the country. “We understand that demand for the vaccine initially will likely exceed our ability to supply on a global basis,” said BioNTech’s chief strategy officer Ryan Richardson.

Compared with many countries in the west, Japan can afford some slack. The spread of the coronavirus has been much slower, with Japan reporting fewer cases since the beginning of the pandemic than what the U.S. has often seen in a single day. And despite the extension of the state of emergency, measures taken to control the virus appear to be paying off, with cases nationwide dropping by half in the past two weeks.

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

Japanese residents have a history of vaccine hesitancy, and health experts have expressed concerns about uptake when the shots do become available.

To address those concerns, Kono -- who took on his role as vaccine czar last month -- has begun to appeal directly to the public. On Tuesday he released a video addressing concerns over vaccine side effects and stressing how rare they were.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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