The health ministry is planning to move ahead with formal approval of the coronavirus vaccine developed by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. on Sunday, sources familiar with the matter said Thursday.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry had intended to approve the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Monday. With the acceleration of its administrative procedures, the government is considering starting vaccinations on Wednesday for around 20,000 doctors and nurses who have consented to receive the shots, the sources said.
The first batch of some 400,000 doses arrived at Narita Airport to the east of Tokyo at around 10:20 a.m. Friday on an All Nippon Airways Co. flight from Brussels.
It had been widely reported that the first doses would arrive from Belgium, where they were manufactured, on Sunday.
Ahead of the formal approval, a health ministry panel is expected to hold a meeting on Friday night to discuss whether the vaccine, jointly developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech SE, should be given the OK. It is highly likely that the panel will give the shot the green light, given that Pfizer’s vaccine has already been administered in a number of other countries including the United States.
Health minister Norihisa Tamura said at a news conference earlier in the day that assuming the panel finds no issues with the vaccine, he will “immediately approve it so that inoculations can begin right away.”
The roughly 20,000 doctors and nurses from 100 hospitals across the country are set to participate in a study aiming to track potential side effects and the frequency with which they occur.
An additional 3.7 million frontline health workers will begin being inoculated in mid-March, followed by people age 65 and older from April at the earliest. People with pre-existing conditions and those working at care facilities for older people will be next, then finally the general population.
Pfizer and its German partner have conducted clinical trials on approximately 43,000 people abroad and found the vaccine is 95% effective. In Japan a trial involving about 160 people was conducted.
It remains unclear when and in what amount Japan can secure further quantities of the vaccine due to tightening EU export controls of products developed in the bloc.
Japan aims to secure the necessary doses of the Pfizer vaccine through negotiations with the European Union.
The government has agreements in place to receive enough vaccine doses for 157 million people, more than enough to cover Japan’s population of 126 million. Of the total number, 72 million doses are to come from Pfizer. The remainder will be provided by AstraZeneca PLC and Moderna Inc.
About 20,000 ultra-cold freezers are slated to be set up at medical facilities across Japan to store the Pfizer vaccine, which was 95% effective in clinical trials. The AstraZeneca vaccine can be stored at 2 to 8 C, making it easier to handle, but is less effective at around 70%.
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