• Reuters, Jiji

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AstraZeneca PLC will make more than 90 million coronavirus vaccine shots in Japan, the government's top spokesman said on Thursday, as concerns mount over whether the country will have enough doses to begin its delayed inoculation campaign.

The British company confirmed to the health ministry it will make the bulk of the vaccines in Japan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters.

"We believe it is very important to be able to produce the vaccines domestically," Kato said.

Japan plans to begin its inoculation push in late February, with Pfizer Inc.'s vaccine shots for front-line medical workers. The country trails most major economies in starting inoculations due its dependence on overseas makers and a requirement that the vaccines go through domestic trials.

Japan has arranged to buy 120 million doses of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. The Nikkei newspaper reported Wednesday that 90 million doses would be made in Japan while the remainder will be imported.

AstraZeneca began Japanese trials of the vaccine, known as AZD1222, last summer and has partnered with Daiichi Sankyo Co., JCR Pharmaceuticals Co. and other local partners to make and distribute the shots.

AstraZeneca has not yet filed for Japanese approval of its formula, even though its domestic trial started before Pfizer's. AstraZeneca did not immediately respond when contacted by Reuters for comment.

Japan faces major logistical hurdles that some experts say will make it difficult for it to vaccinate a large portion of its population ahead of the planned start of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo from July.

Taro Kono, minister in charge of vaccinations, said Wednesday that COVID-19 vaccinations for older people are unlikely to begin before April.

The start of vaccinations for people age 65 or older "will be April 1 or later," Kono said during an online meeting with National Governors' Association President Kamon Iizumi.

The health ministry had indicated its eagerness to start the vaccinations as early as late March. But Kono told reporters on the day, "It can't be in March."

Kono said his remarks were based on the current state of negotiations with Pfizer, as well as the number of medical workers who will be vaccinated first.

He also said that vaccinations for older people, if started in April, are expected to finish in the third week of June.

The government plans to give COVID-19 vaccinations to medical workers, older people and those with underlying health conditions before other citizens. Kono said he is still not sure when vaccinations will be available to the general public in the country.

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