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More than two months after the U.K. and the U.S., Japan finally embarked on an unprecedented coronavirus vaccination blitz Wednesday, marking the third rollout in East Asia after China and Macao.

Kazuhiro Araki, director of the state-run Tokyo Medical Center, on Wednesday morning was the first person in Japan to receive Pfizer Inc.’s vaccine. He is among the 40,000 health care workers who have been given top priority for vaccinations due to their higher risk of coronavirus infection. Half of them, including Araki, have been asked to write observation diaries for seven weeks as part of a government study.

“It wasn’t painful at all, so I feel relieved,” Araki told reporters after getting the shot. “This coronavirus vaccine is a trump card for the new coronavirus. I hope the inoculations will help protect against infections of hospital staff, patients, families and many other people so that we can provide medical care at ease.”

In addition to the global vaccine shortage and the European Union’s export restrictions clouding the outlook for a speedy rollout, Asia’s rollout of the vaccines to put an end to the pandemic has been slower than the West because many nations such as Australia and Japan implement strict requirements for vaccines, including mandating additional clinical trials at home.

Here is everything you need to know about receiving the vaccines:

Free vaccinations will be provided to all residents age 16 and above, but people who have a fever or are suffering from a severe acute disease and those with a history of severe allergic reactions to vaccinations cannot receive the shot. The inoculations are not mandatory and there is no penalty for not getting them. But eligible people have been urged to make efforts to get one for the public good.

The order in which people receive the vaccines will be based on COVID-19 risk factors. One hundred mainly state-run hospitals will start administering the shots to the 40,000 health care workers by next week, with the second dose planned to be given from March 10. Next comes the remaining 3.7 million health care workers, and they could start receiving the shots by the end of this month, Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the rollout, said at a news conference Tuesday.

Starting in mid-March, municipalities will begin mailing vaccination tickets to 36 million people age 65 and older, with their inoculations slated to kick off sometime in April. Once received, they will need to make reservations either online or by phone to receive their inoculation.

Other priority groups include 8.2 million people with chronic conditions, 2 million nursing care workers and 7.5 million people age 60 to 64. Vaccinations for members of the general public age 16 and above are expected to start in the summer.

Pregnant women are not subject to the government’s call for vaccinations due to insufficient clinical data, but if they wish to receive it, they can get the vaccines in consultation with health providers. The Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology has asked for pregnant women not to be removed from the vaccination drive outright, instead recommending that they avoid the jabs during the first trimester.

A medical worker fills a syringe with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Tokyo Medical Center on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI
A medical worker fills a syringe with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Tokyo Medical Center on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI

In principle, people need to get the shots in the city where they have registered their address. But workers or students living away from home or people hospitalized outside their municipality can ask their current city or town to get the shots there if it is difficult for them to return to their home.

A majority of municipalities plan to carry out vaccinations at large facilities such as schools and at their primary care offices.

All you need to bring to the vaccination site are the vaccination ticket and identification. A QR code on the ticket will be scanned at the site. After checking your temperature, you need to fill out a form to indicate whether you have had any severe allergic reactions in the past, if you are taking any medicine or are pregnant. After some brief questions from a doctor based on the form, the shots will be administered.

Details of the vaccine shots received will be instantly recorded on a cloud-based national database that the government is working to install by the time inoculations for older people begin in April. After being given a shot, people will be asked to wait at the facility for 15 to 30 minutes, as 1 in 200,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine is known to cause a severe reaction called anaphylaxis.

Municipalities and medical care providers can access the database, which will also be linked to the 12-digit My Number card issued to all residents in Japan. The database will make things easier if eligible people lose their vaccination tickets or plan to take a second shot in a different city from where they got their first shot.

Japan has been trying to beef up its stocks of special syringes that squeeze an extra shot out of each vaccine vial amid a global shortage of the products. So far, the country has secured enough special syringes to enable the first 40,000 health care workers to get the shots.

Japan is also aiming to secure enough vaccines for all residents by the end of June, but due to a lack of domestic vaccines, the speedy rollout will depend on government approval of two other vaccines that Japan plans to procure from British drugmaker AstraZeneca PLC and U.S. pharmaceutical firm Moderna Inc. AstraZeneca filed for fast-track approval of its vaccine with the health ministry on Feb. 5, while approval of the Moderna vaccine is unlikely before May. Japan last week imported 64,350 vials of Pfizer’s vaccines, Kono said, which would be enough for 386,100 shots if special syringes are used. The European Union has approved the second shipment of Pfizer’s vaccines to Japan, with the doses set to arrive next week.

Although the U.K. has prioritized giving single vaccine shots to reach as many people as possible and delay the second shot by up to 12 weeks, Japan for now plans to stick to the standard two-dose schedule with a three-week interval between jabs, Kono said.

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