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Japan COVID-19 inoculations off to snail pace start due to vaccine, syringe shortages

Mon 8th March, 2021 4:53am
By Rocky Swift
    TOKYO, March 8 (Reuters) - Japan's COVID-19 inoculation
campaign is moving at a glacial pace, hampered by a lack of
supply and a shortage of specialty syringes that underscore the
enormous challenge it faces in its aim to vaccinate every adult
by the year's end.
    Since the campaign began three weeks ago, just under 46,500
doses had been administered to frontline medical workers as of
    At the current rate, it would take 126 years to vaccinate
Japan's population of 126 million. Supplies are, however,
expected to increase in the coming months.
    By contrast, South Korea, which began its vaccinations a
week later than Japan, had administered nearly seven times more
shots as of Sunday.
    Unlike many other countries, Japan requires clinical trials
for new medicines, including vaccines, to be conducted with
Japanese patients, slowing down the approval process.
    So far, only the vaccine developed by Pfizer  PFE.N  and
BioNTech  BNTX.O   22UAy.DE  has been approved. Clinical trials
in Japan for AstraZeneca  AZN.L  and Moderna's  MRNA.O  vaccines
have been conducted and the vaccines are now awaiting regulatory
    "The sense of urgency among the government is not, I think,
similar to other G7 countries," said Haruka Sakamoto, a
physician and researcher at Keio University, noting Japan's
comparatively low case numbers and death toll.
    Japan has had about 438,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with
8,251 deaths. Cases in Tokyo, which is still under a state of
emergency, have subsided from a daily peak of 2,520 on Jan. 7 to
237 on March 7.
    Sakamoto said the health ministry's conservative stance
stems from previous examples of a new medicine gaining approval
relatively quickly only for the ministry to be criticised by the
public and media for going too fast and endangering safety.
    The health ministry did not immediately reply with comment
on the pace of the inoculation rollout.    
    Japan is focusing on vaccinating about 4.8 million medical
workers first before moving on to its elderly population of 36
million. Vaccine Minister Taro Kono has said that while shots
for those over 65 will start next month, supplies will be
extremely limited. 
    Unlike South Korea, which has been using low dead space
syringes to extract six or even seven doses of Pfizer vaccine
from a vial instead of five, and 12 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine
per vial instead of 10, Japan has fallen short on readying
sufficient supply of the specialty syringes. 
    That shortage will mean that some doses will go to waste
when shots for the elderly start, Kono said on Friday. 
    Japan is continuing to negotiate with Pfizer on supplies,
Kono said, and imports are expected to increase four-fold in
April from March to about 1.7 million vials. Each shipment must
be approved by the European Union, which introduced the
mechanism in late January to monitor vaccine exports after drug
makers announced delays in their supplies to the bloc.
    Japan has secured rights to at least 564 million doses of
COVID-19 vaccines, the largest volume in Asia, and Prime
Minister Yoshihide Suga has pledged to have enough for the whole
population by June, before the July 23 start of the Tokyo

 (Reporting by Rocky Swift; Additional reporting by Miyoung Kim
in Singapore; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)
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