Japan’s vaccination drive finally kicks into gear on Monday about four months after the start of inoculations in the US and the UK, a slow rollout that has generated further criticism of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s handling of the pandemic.

The doses for people 65 and over are the first vaccinations for members of the public in Japan after priority was given to inoculating frontline medical staff first.

Japan has so far weathered the coronavirus pandemic well, with infection numbers and deaths just a fraction of many Western countries. But the slow vaccination plan means struggling businesses and fearful shoppers will have to hold out for longer as the recovery of the economy is delayed by as much as two years compared with global peers.

The tardy start comes as stricter measures were reinstated on Monday to quell an uptick in virus cases in the capital, fuelling discontent with Suga in an election year, as the government, like many worldwide, lurches between tightening and loosening guidelines on activity. It also adds to smouldering doubts over Tokyo’s readiness to host the Olympics in July with no timeline for when most people will be inoculated.

“More than anything we need to get on with these vaccinations quickly,” said Kazutaka Sato, the 70-year-old owner of a restaurant in Osaka, the current centre of the pandemic in Japan. “Without vaccinations, it’s going to be extremely tough for businesses like ours to keep going.”

Osaka recorded a record 918 new cases at the weekend and Tokyo’s seven-day average has also crept up in recent weeks.

Some scared

With no domestically developed Covid-19 vaccine of its own, Japan’s late rollout stems from a dependence on imported shots that were initially in limited supply. Another factor was a strict approval process that required local clinical trials for foreign vaccines. So far, Japan has only given the green light to Pfizer-BioNTech’s jabs.

Especially given Japan’s history of public scepticism over vaccine safety, a take-it-slow approach may have also been needed to get the country on board. In Europe, reports that AstraZeneca’s vaccine may cause blood clots in rare instances have made some scared to get shots.

“Naturally, the public would feel reluctant to take the vaccine after seeing this news,” Haruka Sakamoto, a public health researcher at the University of Tokyo, wrote in an e-mail to Bloomberg.

Still, Suga’s government is showing little appetite to make up for lost time. The first batches of vaccines for the over-65s will be limited to 1,000 doses for most areas of the country, with additional doses sent weekly.

Taro Kono, Japan’s vaccine point man and a possible successor to Suga, told Bloomberg that the rate of Covid-19 inoculations is unlikely to pick up speed until May. And the government has so far declined to set any schedule or long-term targets for getting shots into arms.

Meanwhile, a third of the US and half the UK population have already received at least one jab and those countries are expected to hit the 75% mark within four months, according to Bloomberg projections.

“Safety and peace of mind for our citizens are very important and we had to do a local trial,” Suga said on Monday in response to a question about Japan’s slow rollout. “We’d like to get vaccines out now to people as soon as possible.”

Japan, a country of about 126-million people, probably has about 8-million doses of the Pfizer jab, according to figures provided by the government in March. The government estimates it could receive 43-million more doses in May, followed by 45-million in June. Its deal with Pfizer is for 144-million doses.

Japan also has deals for 120-million doses of AstraZeneca’s jab and 50-million doses of Moderna’s. Both of those shots are being considered for emergency approval, but no decisions are expected until next month at the earliest.

Prioritise seniors 

While vaccine hesitancy has been a key issue in Japan and other Asian countries where people are more wary of side effects, there are signs more residents are becoming willing. A survey in late March by the Jiji news agency showed 79% of respondents wanted to take the Covid-19 jab. Another poll showed about two-thirds of people are getting impatient with the speed of the rollout.

Japan will prioritise its 36-million seniors over the age of 65 before opening up vaccinations to people with preexisting health conditions and then younger age groups.

Progress is also likely to be patchy due to Japan’s approach to delivering the vaccines to municipalities. Even Kono, the vaccine tsar, acknowledges that residents of small villages may end up having an easier time getting their shots at first, just because a single shipment of doses might be enough to cover the population, while supply in big cities falls short of needs.

“It’s staggering,” said economist Takahide Kiuchi at Nomura Research Institute. “The gap with other nations is only widening. The vaccine drive has been so slow, putting the economy at risk.”

The hit to consumer spending, which makes up more than half of GDP, will hold back growth and make Japan an economic laggard this year, he says.

Not everyone agrees.

“The benefits of vaccination are bigger for countries that failed to control the virus infection as well as Japan,” said Yuki Masujima at Bloomberg Economics. “Thanks to the relatively low number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Japan, the negative impact from the Japan’s delay in vaccination should only shave at most 0.3 percentage point off GDP in 2021.”

Still, that will leave Japan recovering at a slower pace than its peers and it will still take until 2023 before Japan’s annual output regains its 2019 pre-pandemic level, compared with this year for the US and 2022 for the eurozone, Masujima said.

For Sato, the restaurant owner, it’s all about getting diners back into his shop, where customers are down 70%.

“Everyone will feel safer if they get vaccinated,” he said. “Until then, we can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.”



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