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Coronavirus

Japan says it will have enough vaccine for 36m seniors by June

But most doses arrive in May, and local staff shortages risk slow rollout

A woman receives a simulated shot during a training session for mass COVID-19 vaccinations held in the Japanese city of Kawasaki in January.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japan expects to receive enough coronavirus vaccine doses to fully immunize health care workers and the country's 36 million elderly people by the end of June, but questions remain about the capacity of localities to carry out the inoculations.

Taro Kono, Japan's vaccination czar, on Friday provided reporters with the timetable for deliveries of the two-dose regimen, based on the broad agreement for a schedule reached with vaccine maker Pfizer. The drug company said it will supply 144 million doses to Japan this year, enough to complete vaccinations for 72 million people.

The prime minister's office also said Friday via Twitter that it expects the supply of vaccine doses to increase starting in early May.

Japan began vaccinating 4.7 million health care workers on Feb. 17, and inoculations for residents 65 or older start April 12. But officials previously had not elaborated on how many doses would be delivered, or the timing and destinations.

Pfizer's first shipment from European production facilities reached Japan on Feb. 12. Deliveries are due weekly, subject to approval by the European Union. Most of the doses for the 40 million elderly people and health care workers are expected to arrive in May and June.

Inoculations for those younger than 65 will not begin in earnest until July, making it unlikely that most of the public will be fully vaccinated before the Tokyo Olympics opens July 23.

Though the short-term goals for securing vaccines have been reached, local officials face staffing pressure from the likely prospect of immunizing health workers and the elderly at the same time.

"There are concerns that there will be obstacles finding doctors and nurses for group vaccination venues," said a health official for the city of Kawasaki.

Shizuoka city needs to vaccinate a few hundred thousand elderly people, and an unexpected shortage of vaccines for April means most of the inoculations will be postponed until May or June. The city is talking with its local medical association about recruiting professionals to give the shots. But "the timetable for completing the vaccination is uncertain," said an official for the vaccination program.

Kono stopped short of giving a definitive time frame for completing the vaccinations.

"We can simply progress according to plans by the local governments," he said during Friday's news conference. "There's no need for me to say by when."

Previously, Kono expressed the "goal" of having municipalities finish the two-shot vaccination in two months, with a three-week window between the first and second injection. Now Kono calls that timetable a "benchmark."

The longer it takes to administer shots, the greater the risk of delaying an economic recovery. Japan's second state of emergency has proven effective in lowering infection rates, and widespread vaccinations are seen as imperative to prevent a new wave of cases. Another rise in infections would strain medical workers, creating a ripple effect on the vaccination program.

"Vaccinating residents widely across regions would be difficult amid a fourth wave," Toshio Nakagawa, president of the Japan Medical Association, told reporters Thursday. "It will cause a large disruption in the health care spaces."

After the elderly are vaccinated, the next step is to give shots to younger people. Japan aims to secure enough vaccines for the entire population by June. The government has sealed contracts with vaccine makers AstraZeneca and Moderna, but data from Japanese trials is still incomplete.

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