TOKYO – Japan will inoculate a group of health workers on Wednesday as it belatedly begins a massive coronavirus vaccination drive, with progress depending on the availability of vaccine supplies from Europe, Japan's vaccine minister said.
Taro Kono, the Cabinet administrative minister who is tasked with the vaccine mission, considered crucial to Japan's hosting of the Olympics this summer, also said Tuesday that he is determined to obtain special syringes that can get six doses from a vial instead of five. Standard Japanese-made syringes retain a small amount.
"It’s a valuable vaccine, I’m determined to get six doses out of a vial, no matter what,” Kono said.
On Sunday, the government formally issued the country's first COVID-19 vaccine approval, for shots developed and supplied by Pfizer Inc. that have already been used in many other countries since December.
Japan fell behind after it asked Pfizer to conduct clinical tests with Japanese people in addition to the company's earlier tests in six other nations. Kono said it was necessary to address the concerns of many Japanese about safety in a country known for low vaccine confidence.
“I think it is more important for the Japanese government to show the Japanese people that we have done everything possible to prove the efficacy and safety of the vaccine to encourage the Japanese people to take the vaccine,” he said. "So at the end of the day we might have started slower but we think it will be more effective.”
Supplies of imported vaccines are a major concern because of supply shortages and restrictions in Europe, where many are manufactured, Kono said.
A first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine that arrived last Friday is enough for 40,000 doctors and nurses from 100 selected hospitals across the country, he said. Half will participate in a health study by keeping daily records of their condition for seven weeks after their first of two shots.
Vaccines arrived in a Tokyo hospital late Tuesday, the night before inoculations for its staff were to start.
“I feel like these vaccines are the trump card in COVID-19 countermeasures. I am very relieved that the vaccine has finally arrived,” said the hospital's director, who spoke on condition of anonymity under official policy.
Inoculations of 3.7 million more health workers will begin in March, followed by about 36 million people aged 65 and older starting in April. People with underlying health issues, as well as caregivers at nursing homes and other facilities, will be next, before the general population receives its turn.
“I hope many people will get the vaccine with an accurate understanding of the benefits and risks,” Kono said.
AP video journalist Haruka Nuga contributed to this report.