Japanese frustrated over slow vaccine roll-out after learning of EU exports

Public frustration over Japan's slow vaccine roll-out is intensifying. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Public frustration over Japan's slow vaccine roll-out is intensifying after it emerged that the European Union approved the export of more than 50 million Covid-19 shots to the country this year, the most among nations the bloc is shipping to.

The EU said on Monday (April 26) that it had authorised some 52.3 million doses made in European factories by companies including Pfizer and Moderna for export to Japan, the highest volume among all 43 countries to which vaccines have been shipped.

The large number of doses has struck a nerve among the Japanese public because government officials have often cited supply bottlenecks as one reason for the slow roll-out.

Pressure is growing on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's government to accelerate an effort that has given out doses enough for just 1.3 per cent of its population, the lowest among the 37 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to Bloomberg's vaccine tracker. That compares to 37 per cent in the United States and nearly 36 per cent in Britain.

As the revelation caught fire on social media, vaccines minister Taro Kono tweeted that the numbers were wrong. His office said in an e-mailed statement on Friday that only 28 million shots from Pfizer had arrived in Japan.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato on the same day confirmed news reports that shots of the Moderna vaccine - which the local drug regulator has not yet approved for domestic use - had also been received, but stopped short of disclosing the number of doses.

The EU's export numbers, confirmed by the bloc in a public statement, was shared by analysts, doctors and opposition lawmakers on Twitter, with many asking: "Where are the vaccines?"

The kerfuffle over doses is another blow to Mr Suga's government, which has been criticised for botching the vaccination programme with bureaucratic manoeuvring.

Until recently, Japanese could take comfort knowing their country had responded better to the pandemic than its peers in the West. But with the Olympics in three months and a third state of emergency upon them, public frustration appears to be growing.

In the past week, the government announced efforts to channel more resources to the roll-out and local media reported that it is considering shortening an onerous vaccine authorisation process, moves that some say should have been taken months ago.

The authorities have also asked the physicians' association to increase the number of doctors who can administer vaccines, according to reports.

Mr Suga faces a party leadership poll in September and must call a general election by October. Mr Kono, who is the most-followed Japanese politician on Twitter, is seen as a potential successor.

Earlier this week, Mr Suga asked the defence minister to use the military to set up a mass vaccination centre in Tokyo, the first time the national government has involved itself in vaccine administration - which had been devolved to local municipalities.

Japan has approved only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for use, while the shots from Moderna and AstraZeneca are still waiting for the green light.

The Olympics, due to start in three months, has very little public support, according to polling. Experts say there is a risk that infections and new variants from the more than 10,000 foreign athletes and their entourages could seep into the local community.

Instead of inoculation, the government has laid out strict measures to protect the country from infection risks. Spectators are not allowed to come from overseas, while a decision is due likely by June on whether locals can watch the sporting events.

Some Japanese remain worried about the event, considering not many will be protected by inoculation by July.

"We are completely vulnerable because we are not vaccinated," said Mr Ray Fujii, a Tokyo-based partner at LEK Consulting whose clients include healthcare companies.

"It's not about Pfizer not shipping enough vaccines or we don't have enough vaccines yet. The problem is how we distribute them. Because of the incompetence of the government - central and local government - and misjudgment of what needs to be done."

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