Japan expects to secure 310 million shots of COVID-19 vaccines, including those to be supplied by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer Inc., Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Thursday.
Suga made the remark at a plenary meeting of the House of Councilors.
"The vaccinations will start with medical professionals, older people and those with underlying medical conditions," Suga said.
Suga pledged that the government would disclose "correct information, including on adverse reactions and effectiveness, based on scientific knowledge."
The government has said Japan will receive an additional supply of COVID-19 vaccine doses for 12 million people from Pfizer, with the U.S. pharmaceutical giant's vaccine likely to gain approval for use in mid-February.
Under the latest agreement, Japan has secured doses for a total of 72 million people, more than half of its population of 126 million, from Pfizer within this year, after agreeing last year to buy 120 million doses for 60 million people from the company.
The Pfizer shot, which is the only vaccine already under review by the health ministry, is expected to gain approval on Feb. 15 when the ministry holds a meeting of a related panel, government sources said. The vaccine supply is contingent on government approval.
"We will be able to finally begin vaccinations now that a contract has been agreed to," health minister Norihisa Tamura said during a news conference Wednesday.
"We requested as much vaccine supply as possible by the end of the first half of the year," he added without elaborating.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato suggested that the vaccine will be approved for people age 16 or above.
"Foreign countries are administering the Pfizer vaccine to those age 16 and up, on the basis of data from clinical trials," Kato said at a separate news conference Wednesday.
Government sources have said Japan aims to start vaccinating the general public in May — just two months before the postponed Olympics — after giving shots to medical workers, followed by people age 65 or older from late March, then people with pre-existing conditions and those caring for older people.
But Kato said that the government "is not in a situation to announce a detailed schedule" for innoculating ordinary citizens below the age of 65.
Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech SE have conducted clinical trials on approximately 43,000 people abroad and found its vaccine to be 95% effective. It is planning to submit to the health ministry this month the results of a clinical trial being carried out in Japan involving about 160 people.
The government also has an agreement with AstraZeneca PLC for doses sufficient for 60 million people, alongside a contract with Moderna Inc. for 25 million people.
Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. said Thursday it has begun clinical trials in Japan of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine candidate with an eye to distributing it in the first half of this year.
Takeda, which is undertaking clinical trials and distribution in Japan of the U.S. biotech company's vaccine known as mRNA-1273, will target 200 adults in the study. The drugmaker is planning to provide 50 million doses after obtaining regulatory approval. Each person would need two doses of the vaccine.
Over 39 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have already been administered in around 50 countries, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during an executive board meeting earlier this week.
The pandemic shows no sign of abating in Japan despite the government's request for people to stay at home during the year-end and New Year's holiday period.
More than 5,500 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed Wednesday with a record 1,014 patients showing serious symptoms. The daily tally includes 1,274 new infections confirmed in Tokyo, the hardest hit among 47 prefectures.
Two weeks after the nation's second state of emergency was declared across parts of the Tokyo metropolitan area, the medical system has been under considerable strain, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government recently reported several deaths of COVID-19 patients recuperating at home.
The central government is now planning a legal revision to penalize those who reject hospitalization, with imprisonment of up to one year or a fine of ¥1 million.
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