Japan on track to meet Covid-19 vaccination target despite speed bump: Taro Kono

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Japan's vaccine rollout might have hit a speed bump, but progress towards inoculating its general public by November has not been derailed, vaccine minister Taro Kono told The Straits Times.

TOKYO - Japan's vaccine roll-out may have hit a recent speed bump, but this does not derail the country's plan to finish inoculations by November, vaccine czar Taro Kono said on Monday (July 19).

Speaking to The Straits Times in a one-on-one interview, Mr Kono said: "By the end of September, we will get enough vaccine supply to inoculate every Japanese twice."

He noted that the pace of vaccinations was much faster than expected - and budgeted for.

"We have a supply schedule already fixed, and were aiming for one million doses a day," he said. But Japan is now averaging 1.5 million shots a day, with mayors saying they could even do 1.8 million.

"Right now, it's OK, but they will run out of vaccines soon, and so I had to ask the mayors to please slow down a bit," he said, adding that 1.2 million doses a day would be ideal.

Mr Kono apologised last week to prefecture governors and city mayors who were upset by having been told to ramp up inoculations only to have the rug pulled out from under their feet barely weeks later.

Vaccine bookings have been stopped - and even cancelled - across Japan.

Seen as a potential future prime minister, Mr Kono has the administrative reform portfolio in the Cabinet. He was tapped by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in January to oversee the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out.

Latest data on Monday showed that 70 million doses have been delivered, with 33.5 per cent of the population - or 42.6 million people - having received at least their first dose. Some 21.6 per cent are fully vaccinated in the two-dose regime.

Japan is using Pfizer and Moderna vaccines domestically. While the Health Ministry had also approved the AstraZeneca vaccine, its domestic use was immediately barred over reports of blood clots overseas.

AstraZeneca jabs are now being exclusively used for its vaccine diplomacy. Japan has sent millions of doses to places such as Taiwan, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Mr Kono said that if he had his way, AstraZeneca would also be used in Japan to ease the current vaccine shortage. He noted that this would resolve logistical hurdles, as AstraZeneca is being manufactured in Japan, while Pfizer and Moderna are imported.

Latest data on Monday showed that 70 million doses have been delivered, with 33.5 per cent of the population - or 42.6 million people - having received at least their first dose. PHOTO: AFP

"I'd love to use AstraZeneca vaccine domestically," he said. "But on the other hand there have been negative news about AstraZeneca, with Europe putting an age limit. I'm not sure how that would affect the Japanese."

Mr Kono also lamented the procedural hoops that have caused the slow approval of vaccines and subsequently delayed the roll-out of doses in Japan.

"I understand the Health Ministry was a bit nervous about vaccines because of past legal issues," he said, referring to a string of lawsuits against the government since the 1970s over adverse reactions to vaccines.

But given that Covid-19 was an "emergency situation", he said this should have called for some flexibility instead of "trying to apply regular rules".

He noted how Pfizer's global clinical tests last July were relied on by many nations worldwide. But Japan insisted on its own clinical tests - though the sample size ended up being a scientifically inconclusive 160 people.

"What can you know by testing 160 people? Was it necessary?" Mr Kono asked. "In times of emergency, we need to go with global standards. This saves time and everyone's efforts."

One other challenge, he said, was the country's heavy reliance on paper, though he hopes that the debut of the Digital Agency in September will catalyse change.

"Municipalities were trying to handle records with paper. We were going to vaccinate over 100 million people and do everything by paper," he said. "That's kind of crazy, and so I developed a vaccination record system."

Vaccine passports, to be rolled out later this month, will also initially be paper-based until a digital system is up and running.

When asked about the Olympic Games that will begin on Friday, Mr Kono said: "This is a bit different from any other Olympics, and we need to do what we can do. The athletes will compete without anyone watching in person, but billions are going to be watching them on television."

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