Taro Kono, newly appointed as minister in charge of rolling out COVID-19 vaccines, said Tuesday he would tackle the challenge with a complicated logistics plan to deliver an effective blitz of vaccinations quickly.
“I will do my best so that more people can get safe and effective vaccines at the earliest possible date,” he told a news conference after a Cabinet meeting.
Hisayuki Fujii, state minister for the Cabinet Office, and Hiroshi Yamamoto, state minister for the health ministry, will support Kono in their roles as state ministers with responsibility for the rollout.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Monday night that Kono, the minister in charge of administrative reform, would oversee the distribution of novel coronavirus vaccines, as the administration attempts to recover from sinking approval ratings and simmering criticism over its handling of the pandemic.
“Up until now, this matter has been dealt with under the supervision of individual Cabinet ministers led by the Prime Minister’s Office team. To reinforce the structure (for the vaccine rollout) I have instructed Minister Kono to take on overall coordination,” Suga said Monday evening.
Health minister Norihisa Tamura said Tuesday he hopes Pfizer Inc.’s novel coronavirus vaccine will be approved by mid-February so the vaccination campaign can be launched later that month. The New York-based pharmaceutical giant is slated to submit data from its clinical trials in Japan by the end of this month.
The health ministry signed a basic agreement with Pfizer in July to obtain vaccines for 60 million people — roughly half of all residents — by the end of June. The Diet passed a revised Immunization Act in December to make the vaccinations free of charge and allow the government to compensate pharmaceutical companies for any adverse health consequences.
One of the challenges of the program will be the particular care needed in handling the Pfizer vaccines, which industry sources say may limit the locations where vaccination can be offered to facilities such as large hospitals. The health ministry says they have to be stored at extremely low temperatures, within 15 degrees Celsius of minus 75 C.
The government said last month it would secure more than 10,000 special freezers to store the vaccines. Once they are thawed, they can be stored in a normal refrigerator for up to five days, Pfizer says.
Pfizer has already submitted data to the health ministry showing that its vaccine was 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 in broader late-stage trials, which enrolled more than 43,000 participants in the U.S., Germany, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina, of which 5% were Asian.
But Japan requires additional clinical trials to be conducted on its own people, to ensure safety, before approving the vaccines.
If approved on schedule, the vaccination offensive could begin for four million medical workers by late February, followed by 36 million people age 65 and older from late March. Other priority populations include 8.2 million people with existing chronic conditions, 2 million nursing care workers for the elderly and 7.5 million people age 60 to 64.
Suga’s decision to entrust the 58-year-old Georgetown University alumnus with the crucial task reflects his faith in Kono to turn the tide for the administration, which has faced blistering criticism over its response to the virus crisis — perceived by observers as being too little, too late.
The prime minister added that the appointment was a reflection of Kono’s problem-solving skills in administrative affairs that span across government agencies, something that has been a centerpiece of Suga’s pledges on administrative reform.
Kono is also seen as a prime minister hopeful who could succeed Suga. The latest poll by the Mainichi daily showed that Kono was the public’s top pick to be Japan’s next prime minister.
Suga additionally pledged that the government would continue preparations for starting to roll out the vaccine by the end of February and encouraged people to be inoculated. He described vaccines as “the decisive factor” in controlling the spread of COVID-19.
“We’ll do everything we can to deliver safe and effective vaccines to you all,” he said.
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