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Coronavirus

Japan primed for vaccinations, Suga says, eyeing February approval

Record daily cases and first appearance of new UK strain raise stakes

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on Dec. 25. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday said the country is prepared to introduce vaccines and is looking at February as a key decision-making point.

"We have already developed an arrangement for starting vaccinations as soon as approval is given by the authorities," Suga told reporters. "All the necessary data will be in hand by February for the evaluation of the vaccine efficacy."

The prime minister's remarks came amid a national record-breaking surge in infections. Adding to concerns on Friday evening, Japan reported its first five cases of the new, more infectious strain that has been wreaking havoc in the U.K. All individuals had recently returned from Britain.

"I want to make the vaccine available as soon as possible," Suga stressed.

U.S. drugmaker Pfizer filed for Japanese approval of its vaccine on Dec. 18, and the government is awaiting the full data from an already completed clinical trial in the country. "The Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept at minus 70 C during transport and storage," Suga noted, explaining that the necessary framework is in place.

Japan is set to host the Olympics in July, leading many experts to point out that vaccinations would need to start by spring. The Pfizer vaccine requires two shots in four weeks. It takes several weeks after the second shot before it takes effect.

Calling inoculations the "ultimate defense against the coronavirus," Suga also touched on the order in which Japan plans to administer the shots. He said health care workers would go first, followed by seniors, individuals with underlying illnesses and staff members at nursing care facilities.

The country is currently suffering its worst surge in infections yet. Suga spoke as the nationwide total hit a record above 3,000 for the second day in a row, just as it enters the year-end holidays.

His pandemic adviser, Shigeru Omi, who also appeared at the news conference, emphasized the need to flatten the curve during the holiday season. Otherwise, the situation could spiral out of control as people return to work in early January.

Omi also issued a warning about the new variants that have emerged in the U.K. and South Africa, saying Japan risks falling into "a disastrous situation if such strains enter and spread ... and put a further strain on the hospitals that are already filled to capacity."

He tempered his warning by adding that, although the variants do appear to be more contagious, there is not yet evidence to suggest that they are more damaging.

Suga also tried to tamp down concerns about the new strains. "Viruses are always mutating. The British authorities also say there is no evidence that the vaccines won't work against these variants."

But the prime minister acknowledged it is vital to stop them from entering the country. "New variants are also reported in other countries. We will continue to follow new developments and take swift measures at the border."

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