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Business trends

Businesses to help speed up Japan's vaccine rollout

Hospitality sector to operate call centers and open buses for new revenue streams

Japan's vaccination program for nonmedical workers started this week for those over the age of 65. (Photo by Yuki Nakao) 

TOKYO -- In collaboration with local governments, Japan's private sector is doing its part to speed up the country's vaccine rollout, and hoping for new revenue streams in the process. Although the country's vaccination drive merely just started, there is a potential for concrete business opportunities once companies are able to fit the needs of the local governments, lacking both manpower and infrastructure.

The country's vaccination program for nonmedical workers started this week for those over the age of 65. Amid surging daily numbers of confirmed coronavirus infections, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has been saying that vaccinations are the "last card" for the government.

While the national government is responsible for securing and distributing enough vaccine, local authorities are in charge of vaccinations. Companies from the medical and digital technology sectors as well as the pandemic-hit hospitality sector have found potential business opportunities in providing support for municipal authorities.

Nippon Travel Agency has set up call centers, supported operations at vaccination sites and provided an online booking system developed by the reservation service operator MRSO. "The travel demand evaporated after the coronavirus outbreak last year," a spokesman said.

Hence the company is now allocating more human resources for working with municipal governments on the vaccination program. Before the pandemic, the travel agency was working with municipal governments for regional revitalization projects to attract tourists to rural towns.

The city of Tottori, on the Sea of Japan northwest of Osaka, is one Nippon Travel Agency's clients. "We have a limited number of staffers, so we are outsourcing where we can to ensure a smooth rollout [of the vaccination program]," said Toshiyuki Hamada at Tottori's health care department.

The Nippon Travel Agency spokesman said: "We would like to contribute to smooth inoculation processes so the spread of the virus eases and the travel industry can be revived. We have a sense of mission" to help the program, he added.

Japan has been far behind other countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., in vaccinating the populace. According to Our World in Data, the share of people who had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine in the U.K. had risen to 47.15% by April 9, while Japan was at 0.87%. The sharp contrast between the two was shown this week when British restaurants and pubs were allowed to reopen outdoor seating but Japanese municipal authorities were calling for shorter business hours for restaurants.

Another company in the tourism sector, Kokusai Kogyo, which operate sightseeing buses in Tokyo and neighboring Saitama Prefecture, announced in March that it could lend buses to municipal governments for the vaccination program. The buses could be used to transport elderly vaccine recipients or medical staffers, or as mobile vaccination sites. The company also is offering to dispatch tour guides to help operations at vaccination sites, such as with helping visitors fill out forms.

The company still has no confirmed contracts with municipalities, and said the services had been proposed to show municipalities what it could do. Kokusai Kogyo's bus operations have dropped by about 90% compared to before the pandemic in 2019. "We were looking for a way to somehow make [the business] work."

Kokusai Kogyo's spokesperson suggested that since municipal governments still have not worked out the details of the vaccination program, there may still be demand for its buses. It has been difficult for municipalities to prepare because they "do not know how much vaccine supply there will be, or when," said Tottori's Hamada.

In the medical sector, pharmacies including Welcia Holdings, Nihon Chouzai and Qol Holdings are dispatching their pharmacists to vaccination sites. According to Qol, the company was asked by a municipal authority to contribute. The company is planning to dispatch staff members to at least 10 municipalities, for a fee that will vary.

The pharmacists would prepare vaccine doses in syringes or help visitors fill out forms. Qol has trained more than 1,000 of its pharmacists for these roles.

Startups are also pitching services to digitize or automate inefficient analogue processes such as entering information by hand. The government has ordered the Japanese startup Milabo to develop a vaccination record system for 385 million yen ($3.5 million).

The system is expected to help municipalities record individual vaccinations in real time using national My Number identification numbers, with tablets scanning the bar codes of vaccination tickets. Milabo provides services for digitizing paper forms and has a track record of dealing with My Number for administrative processes.

Tests of that system started at the end of March, two months after the Japanese startup AI Inside announced that it would release a similar system to digitize the process of recording vaccination information. The system would convert preliminary paper examination slips and vaccination tickets into electronic data and would use on-site servers instead of the cloud to handle personal data, in order to ensure privacy.

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