Japan begins COVID-19 vaccinations for Olympics

TOKYO (AP) – Japan kicked off its coronavirus vaccination campaign on Wednesday, months after other major economies started vaccinating and amid questions about whether the reader would reach enough people fast enough to save of the Summer Olympics already delayed by the pandemic.

Despite a recent surge in infections, Japan has largely avoided the kind of cataclysm that has struck the economies, social networks and health systems of other wealthy countries. But the fate of the Olympics and the billions of dollars at stake make Japan’s vaccination campaign crucial. Japanese officials are also well aware that rival China, which has successfully fought off the virus, will host the Winter Olympics next year, bolstering the desire to make the Tokyo Games.

Japan’s deployment has lagged behind other locations as it asked vaccine maker Pfizer to conduct clinical trials with Japanese people, in addition to tests already carried out in six other countries – as part of a effort to address concerns in a country with low confidence in vaccines.

This long-standing reluctance to take vaccines – usually due to fears of rare side effects – along with concerns about shortages of imported vaccines are now weighing on the rollout, which will administer vaccines first to medical workers and then to medical workers. the elderly and vulnerable, and then, possibly in late spring or early summer, the rest of the population.

Medical workers say the vaccinations will help protect them and their families, and business leaders hope the campaign will allow economic activity to return to normal. But the late deployment will make it impossible to achieve so-called collective immunity in the country of 127 million people before the start of the Olympics in July, experts say.

This will leave officials struggling to allay widespread mistrust – and even outright opposition – among citizens to hosting the Games. About 80% of those polled in recent media surveys are in favor of canceling or postponing the Olympics again.

Despite this, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and other members of his government are pushing ahead with Olympic plans, calling the Games “proof of human victory over the pandemic”.

Japan has not seen the massive epidemics that rocked the United States and many European countries, but a spike in cases in December and January raised concerns and led to a partial state of emergency that includes demands for early closure of restaurants and bars. Suga saw his support dip below 40%, from around 70% when he took office in September, with many saying he was too slow to impose restrictions and that they were too lax.

The country now averages about 1 infection per 100,000 population, compared to 24.5 in the United States or 18 in the United Kingdom. Overall, Japan has recorded around 420,000 cases and 7,000 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

In a room full of reporters on Wednesday, Dr Kazuhiro Araki, president of Tokyo Medical Center, rolled up his sleeve and was shot, one of the first Japanese to do so.

“It didn’t hurt at all and I feel very relieved,” he told reporters as he was monitored for any allergic reactions. “We now have better protection and I hope we will feel more comfortable providing medical treatment. “

About 40,000 doctors and nurses considered vulnerable to the virus because they treat COVID-19 patients are among the first group expected to be vaccinated using vaccines developed by Pfizer and its Germany-based partner BioNTech – after the vaccine was cleared Sunday by the Japanese regulator. It requires two doses, although some protection begins after the first shot.

Japan’s late approval of the vaccine means it is lagging behind many other countries. Britain began vaccinations 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 around 40 million people received injections. Vaccines were rolled out in many European Union countries at the end of December, and campaigns there have been criticized for being slow.

But Japanese Vaccine Minister Taro Kono has defended the delay as necessary to build confidence in a country where mistrust of vaccines is decades old. Many people have vague unease about vaccines, in part because their side effects have often been highlighted by the media here.

“I think it is more important that the Japanese government show the Japanese people that we have done everything possible to prove the efficacy and safety of the vaccine in order to encourage the Japanese people to take the vaccine,” Kono said. . “So in the end, maybe we would have started slower, but we think it will be more effective.

Half of the recipients of the first injections will keep daily records of their condition for seven weeks; this data will be used in a health study to inform those concerned about side effects. Studies of tens of thousands of people with the Pfizer vaccine – and others currently being 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,” Cabinet Secretary General Katsunobu Kato told reporters.

Development of a Japanese vaccine for COVID-19 is still in its early stages, so the country, like many others, must rely on imported vaccines – raising concerns about supply problems seen elsewhere as producers struggle to meet demand. Suga on Wednesday recognized the importance of strengthening vaccine development and production capacity as “important crisis management” and pledged to provide more support.

The supplies will help determine the progress of the vaccination campaign in Japan, Kono said.

The first batch of Pfizer vaccine arriving Friday is enough to cover the first group of medical workers. A second batch is expected to be delivered next week.

To get the most out of each vial, Japanese authorities are also scrambling to obtain specialized syringes that can draw six doses per vial instead of the five with standard Japanese syringes.

After frontline medical workers, an additional 3.7 million health workers will be vaccinated from March, followed by around 36 million people aged 65 and over from April. People with underlying health conditions, as well as caregivers in nursing homes and other facilities, will be next, before the general population gets its turn.

Some critics have noted that the vaccination campaign – which requires the intervention of medical workers – is adding to their burden, as Japanese hospitals are already strained by the daily treatment of COVID-19 patients. There is an additional concern that hospitals will not have additional capacity to cope with the large number of foreign visitors that the Olympics would involve.


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