Japan could be facing Covid-19 vaccine crunch as it nears Olympics start

Japan administered more than a million daily shots for several days in June but only about 12 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Some Japanese municipalities have stopped taking Covid-19 vaccination reservations due to short supplies from the central government, possibly slowing inoculations nationwide just weeks before Tokyo hosts the Olympics.

Osaka City - part of Japan's second largest metropolitan area - is thinking about suspending new reservations for vaccination because of a lack of supply from the government, Mayor Ichiro Matsui said on Thursday (July 1).

A handful of other cities have also stopped taking new reservations or pushed back plans to open access to people below the age of 65, according to Jiji Press.

Japan's vaccination drive has picked up speed after getting off to a slow start but will be nowhere reaching the bulk of the population before the country hosts the Olympics.

Any slowdown in vaccinations puts pressure on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's government as it tries hold the global sports spectacle during a pandemic and tamp down on a worrying spike in infections in Tokyo ahead of the July 23 opening ceremony.

Ahead of Olympics "it is the issue of maldistribution rather than a shortage", said Dr Kenji Shibuya, a former World Health Organisation adviser now in charge of overseeing Covid-19 vaccinations in Soma, Fukushima in northern Japan. Dr Shibuya said the city has secured enough doses for its population of around 34,000 and plans on finishing inoculations in mid-July.

When asked about the situation in Osaka, government spokesman Katsunobu Kato told reporters on Friday they were continuing with plans to provide advance information on vaccine distribution plans as quickly as possible.

Japan is mainly using imported Pfizer and BioNTech vaccines and inoculations are mostly carried out by local governments. Municipalities design inoculation plans for residents, and put in requests with the central government for the expected amount of vaccine. The central government, which holds the supply, then distributes the doses.

The country administered more than a million daily shots for several days last month but only about 12 per cent of Japan's population is fully vaccinated - the lowest among its Group of Seven peers, which have full-vaccination rates of between 31 per cent to 50 per cent of the population.

Japan is racing to fully vaccinate around 36 million of its residents over the age of 65 before the end of this month. The Olympics have fueled worries of potential virus spread due to more people moving around domestically to watch the games, and tens of thousands of participants coming in from overseas.

Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said late last month it was possible some municipalities were stockpiling vaccines, adding more careful calculations of requested vaccine doses were needed for more efficient distribution, according to the Nikkei newspaper.

The National Governors' Association said in a statement on June 19 that the supply of Pfizer shots to local governments would greatly decrease this month and called for the central government to give more concrete information on deliveries to municipalities so the vaccination program can continue smoothly.

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