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Japan last in line as nations press ahead with vaccination

With no shots yet, authorities scramble to regain lost ground

A nurse administers Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine in the U.S. state of Arizona. More than 50 countries have already started vaccinating residents.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- More than 50 foreign countries are already administering COVID-19 vaccines. But Japan has yet to approve any, and many local governments responsible for organizing vaccinations on the ground are sounding alarms.

"At this point, we do not have a detailed schedule regarding the vaccine supply," Taro Kono, Japan's minister in charge of vaccine distribution, told reporters Friday.

Japan faces mounting uncertainties over how much coronavirus vaccine to expect and when as early missteps come back to haunt it.

Kono said to disregard Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Manabu Sakai's comment the day before that Japan expects to secure enough vaccine for the whole country by June. It is unusual for a cabinet member to directly shoot down a comment by a high-ranking government official.

"We have reached an agreement to receive a total of 314 million doses," Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Friday. "We hope for a swift delivery in order to put an end to the pandemic as quickly as possible," he said.

Japan plans to start vaccinating health care workers by late February and older adults by March. It has yet to set a timeline for vaccinating those with preexisting conditions and the rest of the population.

Local governments have expressed concern over the lack of information from the central government. The city of Chiba plans both mass vaccination drives and patient-by-patient administration at hospitals. But "we can't set specific dates, because we don't know how many doses we'll receive," a city worker said.

"There are a lot of issues to tackle, like how we handle the vaccines and the order in which we administer them," Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said Friday. "We ask the national government to outline its plan as soon as possible," she said.

Yamagata Mayor Takahiro Sato worries about securing the right venues for large-scale vaccinations. He fears overcrowding, depending on how many doses the city receives and how the shots need to be spaced apart.

Japan's challenges with securing vaccines date back to last April, when the new coronavirus was spreading rapidly around the world. Pfizer decided to conduct clinical trials for its vaccine across countries including the U.S., Germany, Brazil and South Africa. Country-by-country trials are more common and tend to produce more reliable results, but the multicountry approach is quicker.

Japan was not chosen to host these trials. Although Pfizer has not disclosed why, the country is believed to have had too few cases at the time, relatively speaking.

The U.S. and Europe were able to approve the vaccine quickly thanks to data from their clinical trials. Meanwhile, countries like Japan and South Korea that were not included in those trials have yet to start vaccinations. There is no evidence that the Japanese government made special efforts to prevent this delay.

Japanese authorities decided in September that coronavirus vaccines could not be approved in the country without clinical trials here. Pfizer began a trial in Japan that October, roughly half a year after its initial round of trials.

Japan was supposed to receive 120 million doses from Pfizer by June. But the two sides had not yet finalized their contract as of the end of 2020, leading the prime minister's office to tell the Japanese Embassy in Washington to negotiate directly with Pfizer's U.S. headquarters.

Japan finally inked a formal contract with Pfizer on Wednesday, two days after Kono was entrusted with vaccine distribution. The country is now set to receive 144 million doses, enough for 72 million people, by year-end. But there is concern that the new timeline could delay vaccination efforts.

More than 56 million doses of coronavirus vaccines had been administered across 54 countries and regions as of Thursday, according to data compiled by Nikkei and the Financial Times. The race to secure them is only expected to heat up. Although Japan is eager to make up for lost time, it remains unclear when deliveries will come in from Pfizer and others.

AstraZeneca began its clinical trials in Japan before Pfizer. But it still has not applied for approval here, which could delay the shipment of the 30 million doses promised by March. Moderna announced this week the start of dosing in Japanese clinical trials for its vaccine.

Japan is now paying the price for its initial foot-dragging. Efforts to curb new infections and revive the economy depend on whether the government can quickly catch up.

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