WASHINGTON -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is arranging to talk directly to executives at U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer in a bid to purchase additional COVID-19 vaccine supplies, several sources told Nikkei.
Suga is expected to talk directly to Pfizer executives by telephone on Saturday while he is in the U.S.
Japan's vaccination drive has been slow compared to those in the U.S. and U.K., and Suga is seeking additional supplies in an attempt to expedite matters.
Japan has purchasing contracts with Pfizer for 144 million doses, with the U.K.'s AstraZeneca for 120 million and with Moderna of the U.S. for 50 million.
But so far the Japanese government has only authorized the use of Pfizer's shots.
Japan expects to receive 100 million doses from Pfizer by the end of June, enough to cover residents 65 and older. The vaccine requires each patient to receive two shots.
But the government still needs to secure supplies for the rest of Japan's population, and the outlook is uncertain.
Some government officials were wary of directly approaching the pharmaceutical company.
If Pfizer agrees to provide additional supplies, Japan could speed up its inoculation efforts and provide shots to more of its residents, including those with chronic health conditions.
According to Our World in Data, the share of the U.K. populace that had received at least one dose was 47.15% on April 9. In Japan, the figure was at 0.87%. The sharp contrast was further illustrated this week when British restaurants and pubs were allowed to reopen outdoor seating while Japanese municipal authorities were calling for restaurants to curtail their business hours.
There is no fixed schedule in the approval process for the AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines. Health minister Norihisa Tamura said in March that these vaccines could be approved "as early as May or June."
The outlook has been further clouded by reports in Europe of blood clots in some recipients of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The German government has restricted the use of the vaccine to people older than 60.
Suga has pledged to secure enough vaccine supplies for Japan's 126 million residents by June -- a difficult deadline if the approvals of the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines are delayed.
Just before arriving in the U.S., Suga stepped up his COVID fight by approving social restrictions for Aichi Prefecture.
Variants of the virus are on the rise in Japan, leading to a surge in infections. The prime minister, who has put Taro Kono, the country's minister for administrative and regulatory reform, in charge of the vaccine program, is pinning his hopes on additional vaccine supplies.