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Coronavirus

Japan to provide ultracold freezers to store COVID vaccine

Government faces challenge of inoculating millions by July for Tokyo Olympics

A screen on the front of a freezer indicates it can maintain a temperature of minus 80 degrees Celsius, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020 at Mount Sinai Queens hospital in New York. The hospital is set to receive shipments of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine.    © AP

TOKYO -- Ever since Japan signed an agreement with Pfizer and BioNTech in July to receive 120 million doses of their coronavirus vaccine, the country has been getting ready a mass vaccination plan.

The already herculean task has been made more urgent by the need to inoculate 125 million people, each with two shots, by the Olympic Games which is still set to begin in Tokyo in July. Pfizer said in a July statement that the deliveries are planned for the first half of 2021.

A draft plan released by the government on Wednesday shows a vaccination program spread over several months, with an initial focus on medical workers, and the elderly and people with underlying illnesses who are most at risk of dying from COVID-19.

Japan has also ordered 120 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and 50 million of the Moderna one.

One of the challenges is how to efficiently administer the vaccines. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine needs to be kept at minus 70 degree Celsius. The vaccine is distributed in vials, each containing enough for five doses. Before injection, the vaccine is defrosted at room temperature and diluted with sodium chloride. Once defrosted, the vaccine needs to be used soon or goes bad. 

If kept in dry ice, the vaccine lasts for only 10 days, according to the government. Japan will provide 10,500 ultracold freezers to local governments and hospitals. There are 1,700 local governments and 110,000 hospitals in Japan.

The government will also take responsibility for the supply of dry ice, syringes and needles needed for the vaccination program.

Local governments are, however, responsible for disseminating information and promoting the vaccine program. To receive a shot, people need to register through a new vaccination website, or via a call center. They will then receive a voucher that will allow them to receive the jabs. The voucher will also act as proof of vaccination.

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