By Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg · Gearoid Reidy
The country plans to complete vaccination of 50 million people in high-priority tiers, including the elderly and health-care workers, by April, according to the Yomiuri newspaper, citing multiple unidentified people. Japan then plans to begin inoculation of the general public as early as May, depending on the availability of doses, the report said.
The Health Ministry could not confirm the report when contacted by Bloomberg News. Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, the government's top spokesman, said Wednesday that the government couldn't announce a schedule before the country had approved a vaccine.
Taro Kono, who was appointed by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Monday as minister in charge of the vaccine rollout, took to Twitter to pour cold water on the reports.
"The newspapers are all citing 'government officials' but they're completely unfounded, and just guessing," he wrote. "You're better off not trusting them."
Still, the Yomiuri report is an early indication of how Japan, which is facing its biggest wave of infections, may roll out vaccines to the general population. Suga has said he aims to begin the country's vaccination program in late February starting with frontline medical workers.
The government has emphasized that vaccination is not a prerequisite for holding the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to start in July following a year's delay. Surging cases in Japan and elsewhere and new strains of the virus have cast doubt on the country's ability to hold the games as planned.
The rollout laid out in the Yomiuri report would represent a hugely ambitious plan. Completing vaccination of the 50 million in the high priority tiers, including the elderly, medical workers and those with underlying conditions, would require more than 800,000 doses to be administered each day.
Such a plan would keep pace with an aggressive program in China, which in December set out to inoculate 50 million people against the virus in about a two-month span ahead of the annual Lunar New Year holiday. Other countries have also set goals to reach herd immunity, which occurs when a large portion of a community becomes immune to a disease.
South Korea's president said this week the country may reach herd immunity by November at the latest. In the U.S., Anthony Fauci has said that level will likely happen during the summer, with a return to normality by the end of the year.
Japan, which has plans to provide vaccines free of charge, is working to approve Pfizer Inc.'s shot in the middle of February, Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said last week. Vaccines will not be given to the more than 18 million children under 16 until more trial data on that age group is available, according to the Yomiuri.
Japan has sealed a contract for about 144 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine this year, and will request the company to provide much of that supply by June, Tamura told reporters in Tokyo late Wednesday. Pfizer is the only company so far to have applied for emergency approval for its vaccine in Japan, but the country also has contracts with Moderna Inc., AstraZeneca Plc and Novavax Inc.
Japan's plan faces many potential obstacles, among them a public cautious about receiving a vaccine so soon. An NNN/Yomiuri poll in December found that while most wanted to get the vaccine eventually, only 15% wanted to take it "soon," with a further 15% responding they didn't want it at all.