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Coronavirus

Japan starts Pfizer vaccine Wednesday, 2 months after UK and US

Digital tracking systems needed, creating challenge for analog government

Staff at a university hospital in Japan's Aichi Prefecture practice for delivering coronavirus vaccinations. (Photo by Koji Uema)

TOKYO -- Japan begins inoculating medical workers against the coronavirus Wednesday, two months behind the U.K. and the U.S., after the government gave its first green light to a vaccine.

The health ministry approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine Sunday for people 16 and older, with a schedule of two doses three weeks apart. The vaccination campaign starts with doctors, nurses and other staff at 100 selected hospitals, with a senior government official saying Monday the initial round is expected to cover "nearly 20,000 people."

The vaccination poses a test of the country's ability to manage a nationwide health program that requires digital recordkeeping for both the shots and their recipients. A contact-tracing app introduced last year in hopes of curbing the spread of the virus was marred by a flaw affecting about one-third of users.

The U.K. and U.S. approved the Pfizer vaccine and began administering it in December. In Asia, Japan trails China, India, Indonesia, Singapore and others in starting vaccinations.

Japan aims to begin inoculating people 65 and older -- a population of 36 million -- in April, but delays in vaccinating medical staff could throw off this schedule.

Eligibility is set to expand in March to roughly 3.7 million medical personnel. Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo, for example, expects to inoculate more than 190,000 people at about 280 sites.

But some medical institutions set to administer vaccines say that a lack of clear information on how many people will be able to receive the shots is hampering preparations.

The health ministry on Monday launched its V-SYS management system, which can track dose distribution by prefectural and local governments as well as inventories at individual vaccination sites. The ministry also plans to create a website where people can search for places to get the shot and manage appointments.

Japan looks to have a separate system for vaccination records operating by April. This can be linked to the "My Number" national ID system, helping solve difficulties in tracking people such as if they relocate.

Japan's Immunization Act lets authorities require vaccinations when there is an "urgent need to prevent a disease spreading," though it contains no penalties for failing to get a shot. The central government will cover the entire cost of the coronavirus vaccines.

Pfizer's vaccine was found in clinical trials to be 95% effective compared with a placebo, though the accelerated development process has meant a relative lack of data about some aspects of the shot. The documentation included with packages of the vaccine notes that the duration of the protection provided by the shot has not been confirmed.

Recipients will be monitored for about a month for side effects.

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