Citizen mistrust, govt caution stop COVID-19 vaccine in Japan

By Antonio Hermosín Gandul

Tokyo, Jan 29 (efe-epa).- Japan’s distrust and the government’s caution have so far stopped COVID-19 vaccinations in the country, which will try to immunize its population against the clock before the Tokyo Olympics.

The Japanese Executive intensified efforts to prepare the inoculation of its 125.6 million inhabitants this week from the end of February to the beginning of July.

Japan is pressured by the rebound in infections that has affected the country since mid-November, and by the proximity of the Olympic Games, an event scheduled for next summer. It has been plagued by doubts about the pandemic and would entail the arrival of thousands of travelers from all over the world.

“In other countries, COVID-19 has been considered a national security problem, which is why vaccination has been promoted as soon as possible. The sense of urgency in Japan is totally different,” Haruka Sakamoto, a researcher at Global Health Policies of the University of Tokyo, told EFE.

Japan is going through the third and largest wave of infections to date, but its data on daily and accumulated infections, as well as deaths, are still well below those of other countries such as the United States or the European Union, where vaccination campaigns began weeks ago.

The country accumulates more than 381,700 infections and 5,510 deaths, and since Jan. 8, Tokyo and 10 other prefectures of the country are under a health emergency due to the record rebound in infections.

Another reason for Japan’s delay in starting its vaccination campaign is its national regulations, which require that drugs be subjected to clinical trials with local patients, regardless of whether they have received authorization from regulators in other countries.

The vaccine developed by Pfizer requested authorization for use in Japan in December and approval is expected at a meeting to be held on Febr. 15 by the Ministry of Health, while AstraZeneca has not yet initiated these procedures.

The government has reserved some 157 million doses of the vaccines developed by both pharmaceutical companies and Moderna, and plans for most of them (about 90 million) to be produced locally. This is thanks to an agreement reached with AstraZeneca and due to the fear that high global demand hinders its supply.

The Executive led by Yoshihide Suga will also have to deal with the skepticism of the Japanese towards new vaccines, which adds to the waning popular support for his government due to discontent with his management of the pandemic.

A recent survey by the state broadcaster NHK showed that about 38 percent of those consulted did not want to be inoculated, compared to 50 percent who did. The remaining respondents preferred to wait for more information about potential side effects.

“Many people still think new vaccines such as those for COVID-19 are not safe enough,” said Sakamoto, who attributes this “widespread perception” to a series of previous public vaccination campaigns that ended in scandal or controversy.

The most recent was the vaccine against the human papillomavirus (HPV), whose widespread application was no longer recommended by the Ministry of Health in 2013 after the appearance of information in the local press about its side effects. This was despite the fact that its efficacy and safety are recognized by the World Health Organization.

The vaccination campaign would begin between March and April for health personnel and the elderly and with chronic diseases, and would continue with the rest of the population between May and July, according to the calendar advanced by local media.

Japanese authorities carried out a logistical trial on Wednesday in a hospital in Kawasaki (southeast of Tokyo) in view of the expected high rate of vaccination, which would require inoculating about a million people daily.

The aim is to have the entire population covered the same month that the Tokyo Olympic Games will be held, scheduled to begin Jul. 23, and which will involve at least 11,000 athletes from around the world.

The entry of foreign visitors to Japan for the Olympics is currently up in the air due to the closure of its borders, and will largely depend on how vaccination progresses both in the Asian country and in the rest of the world. EFE-EPA


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