Japan probing deaths of two people who had Moderna's Covid-19 shots

The deaths were confirmed three days after the two men received their second Moderna jabs this month, the health ministry said.
The deaths were confirmed three days after the two men received their second Moderna jabs this month, the health ministry said.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - Japan is investigating the deaths of two people who were administered Moderna's Covid-19 shots from vaccine batches that have since been suspended.

While the relationship between the deaths and the shots is unclear, the health ministry will conduct the investigations together with external experts, and continue to assess the safety of the vaccine, according to a statement on Saturday (Aug 28).

Doses from three lots have been halted following reports that foreign particles were found in one of the batches. The two people received their second shots from a lot that did not have any foreign particles reported, but it was suspended because the batch was produced at the same facility around a similar time, the health ministry said.

The deaths of the two men in their 30s were confirmed three days after they received their second Moderna jabs this month, the health ministry said. Neither men had a history of allergies or other underlying conditions.

Takeda Pharmaceutical, the local distributor of the Moderna shot, and the vaccine manufacturer said it was important that the relationship between the deaths and the shots is officially investigated. No link has been detected so far, they said in a joint statement on Saturday.

"The investigation is being conducted with the greatest sense of urgency, transparency and integrity and is of the highest priority," the companies said. "Takeda and Moderna will keep the public informed as we learn more."

Japan's health minister Norihisa Tamura said on national broadcaster NHK on Sunday that the investigation into the cause of the deaths is still ongoing.

Separately, two Japanese regions suspended use of some Moderna Covid-19 shots on Sunday after more cases of contamination were spotted, the local governments said. 

Okinawa prefecture, in southern Japan, said it had suspended use of Moderna shots at a major vaccination centre in the city of Naha, while Gunma prefecture, north of Tokyo, also said it had paused use of contaminated lots.

Okinawa suspended some vaccinations on Saturday evening after observing foreign-looking particles in doses that did not come from the three halted batches, said Mr Atsushi Mizuta, an official there overseeing the vaccination programme. The prefecture said it was discussing next steps with the health ministry.

 In Gunma, an official told Agence France-Presse: “We continue use of Moderna lots that are not affected by the incident.” 

Takeda has requested that Moderna and the company's European contract manufacturing organisation urgently conduct a thorough investigation to determine the nature of the foreign substance, according to the joint statement.

"We are aware of unofficial reports that have provided initial indication of the type of particle matter in the vials," Takeda and Moderna said.

"These reports are inconclusive and it is important to rely on a formal investigation before determining the precise nature of the particle. Moderna is in the process of conducting that investigation and the vials have been sent to a qualified lab for analysis and initial findings will be available early next week."

Earlier in the week, Takeda said there have been no safety concerns tied to the halted vials, and vaccinations using Moderna's other shots in Japan will proceed as usual.

About 124.5 million vaccine doses have been administered in Japan, and about 43.5 per cent of its population are fully inoculated, government data showed.