Japan cuts reliance on AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine with more Pfizer jabs

Currently, only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is cleared for use in Japan.

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Japan is poised to buy more doses of the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, a move that would pave the way for the country to immunise its adult population without using any of the controversial shots it purchased from AstraZeneca.

Pfizer is expected to provide an additional 50 million doses by September in a contract that could be agreed on this month, the Nikkei reported on Wednesday (April 21), without citing sources. The purchase would bring Japan's total supply of the companies' vaccine to 195 million doses.

Japan also has an agreement for 50 million doses of Moderna's shot, creating enough supply of the two-dose immunisations to protect around 110 million residents above the age of 16.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said on Wednesday that the government and Pfizer are still discussing the additional doses, and declined to comment further. Officials have said that Japan will secure enough vaccine supply, including approved and unapproved shots, for all its residents by September.

The Nikkei's report comes as more countries are vying for jabs from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which use a novel mRNA technology that has been proven safe and highly effective.

Shots developed by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, built using a different viral vector technology, have come under the spotlight recently after regulators temporarily halted their use to investigate links to rare and potentially deadly blood clots.

The European Union earlier this week tapped into an option in its contract with Pfizer and BioNTech to buy an additional 100 million doses.

While Japan was not known to have a similar deal, the agreement came after a phone call between Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Pfizer chief executive officer Albert Bourla last weekend during Mr Suga's state visit to the United States - the first by a foreign leader since President Joe Biden took office.

Currently, only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is cleared for use in Japan. Moderna and AstraZeneca have filed for approval, but a decision is not expected until May at the earliest.

A report this week suggested that the AstraZeneca approval may be delayed as regulators request more information on the blood clots. Japan's deal with AstraZeneca is for 120 million shots, many of which are already being manufactured domestically.

Despite the pauses, many experts and regulators continue to recommend the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson shots, saying their benefits outweigh the risks. But the publicity around the possible side effects could exacerbate concerns about the shots and slow their use in countries like Japan that have high vaccine hesitancy rates.

Relying mainly on the Pfizer-BioNTech shot could simplify Japan's vaccine roll-out, which has been the slowest among the Group of Seven nations. The current approach, done through local municipalities, is designed for the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, Mr Taro Kono, the Cabinet minister in charge of Japan's vaccine roll-out, said in a press conference last Friday.

The Moderna shots "need a different deep freezer than Pfizer, and they have a different date between the first and second shots," Mr Kono said. "We don't want to confuse the municipalities."

Shots for the general public began this month, though limited to those over the age of 65. So far, about 2 million shots have been administered to the population of 126 million - about 1.6 per cent of the residents.

Pressure to hasten the effort has intensified as a new state of emergency is set to be declared in Japan's urban areas on Friday - with the Tokyo Summer Olympics less than 100 days away. The government's current target date for completing its vaccination effort is February 2022.

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