• Reuters

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As the nation scrambles to secure special syringes to maximize the number of COVID-19 vaccine shots that can be used from each vial, manufacturers are struggling to ramp up production quickly, raising fears that millions of doses could go waste.

Japan, with a population of 126 million, signed a contract last month with Pfizer Inc. to buy 144 million doses of its vaccine, or enough for 72 million people, with the vaccination campaign set to start on Wednesday.

One vial is meant to provide six shots, Pfizer says, but drawing that volume of vaccine from the vial requires special syringes that minimize waste. Using the standard syringes the government has set aside in preparation for the inoculation drive, only five shots can be dispensed from each vial.

“We are still trying to secure these special syringes,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said Tuesday.

When asked last week whether the shortage meant the number of shots Japan could administer would be reduced, he did not directly answer the question.

Both a Pfizer Japan spokesperson and a health ministry official declined to say whether the contract to supply Japan with 144 million doses of vaccine by the end of the year was based on six doses being taken from each vial.

Inoculating the population swiftly is a top priority for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government as he is determined to hold the Tokyo Olympics this summer after the Games were postponed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an bid to minimize the amount of vaccine left unused in syringes and vials, the government is asking medical equipment manufacturers to boost output of the special “low dead-space” syringes, but there are doubts whether that can be done quickly enough.

Nipro Corp., which runs a plant in Thailand capable of making 500,000 units a month, said it planned to boost its monthly capacity to a few million, but that it would take up to five months to reach that goal.

“We received a request from the health ministry and we need to take some steps, but it’s not something we can do overnight. It’ll be another four to five months before we can ramp up sharply,” a Nipro spokeswoman said.

Terumo Corp., another major Japanese manufacturer of medical equipment, said it had started developing syringes that could extract six doses from the vials, but that it was too early to say when it would be able to start commercial output.

Although daily new infections with the novel coronavirus in Japan have been in decline in recent weeks after peaking in early January, Tokyo and nine other prefectures remain under a state of emergency.

The nation has seen around 418,000 cases in total, with 7,042 deaths, according to public broadcaster NHK.

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