• Kyodo

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Japan’s COVID-19 vaccination drive entered full swing Thursday, with locations for inoculations expanding beyond the Tokyo metropolitan area and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga inspecting a vaccination program at the Tokyo hospital that launched the drive the previous day.

Suga observed the vaccination process in action at the state-run Tokyo Medical Center, one of the eight hospitals in the capital and its vicinity across which a total of 125 staff members were inoculated Wednesday.

“I felt medical workers’ (high) expectations for the vaccines,” Suga told reporters after visiting the hospital. “We hope to deliver vaccines for all the people in Japan as soon as we can.”

No severe side effects were reported Wednesday among the 125 inoculated individuals.

Health professionals were immunized with the vaccine, developed by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer Inc. and Germany’s BioNTech SE, at several institutions in the prefectures of Ibaraki, Chiba, Nagano and Okayama on Thursday, with the program expected to expand to 100 hospitals across the nation next week.

At Mito Medical Center in Ibaraki Prefecture, vaccinations for its doctors and nurses began in the afternoon.

Takashi Yamaguchi, head of the medical center, said after getting a shot that it was not painful compared with the influenza vaccine.

Kenji Yuzawa, head of the hospital’s clinical research department, said “vaccines are the strongest weapons against the coronavirus” and that he was proud to be one of the first to get a shot for clinical research.

Of the initial group of health workers being offered vaccination, 20,000 will take part in a study monitoring the prevalence or extent of any potential side effects that may be caused by the vaccine. Data gathered by the health ministry’s research team will be released every week.

The health workers will be asked to keep daily records for seven weeks after receiving the first of two shots. The shots will be administered three weeks apart.

At the Tokyo Medical Center, 12 staffers — including three doctors and five nurses — were inoculated Wednesday. Hospital head Kazuhiro Araki, who was first in the country to receive the vaccine, said he hopes participating in the study will “help both staff and patients prevent infections.”

The Tokyo Medical Center said it plans to inoculate about 60 people per day, and complete vaccinations of 800 individuals by the end of March as part of the country’s inoculation program, which is prioritizing around 40,000 health workers in its first phase.

Vaccination of a further 3.7 million front-line health care providers is set to begin in March, followed by 36 million people age 65 or above from April, according to the vaccination timetable.

People with pre-existing conditions and those working at elderly care facilities will be next in line, followed by the general population.

The start of the nation’s novel coronavirus vaccination program has trailed those of around 80 other countries, as Japan requires additional clinical trials on its own population to ensure safety before approving vaccines. The rollout began more than two months after those in the U.K. and the United States.

Asked Wednesday during the House of Representative’s Budget Committee session about the cause of the delay, Suga admitted that the need to conduct clinical trials domestically had held up the process.

Vaccine rollout minister Taro Kono said Tuesday that foreign residents will become eligible for the free shots in the same order of priority as Japanese citizens.

Japan received its first shipment of about 386,000 doses from Pfizer’s factory in Belgium last week and granted fast-track approval for domestic use on Sunday.

Kono said at a news conference Tuesday that a second shipment had been cleared by the European Union under its new vaccine export controls and was expected to arrive next week, but declined to say how many doses it would contain.

Late-stage clinical trials showed the Pfizer vaccine to have an efficacy rate of around 95%, compared with 40% to 60% for influenza vaccines. Japan also has supply deals with AstraZeneca PLC and Moderna Inc. to receive enough doses for its population of 126 million.

But public skepticism could be a hurdle for the nation’s vaccine rollout, with only 63.1% of respondents in a Kyodo News poll conducted this month expressing willingness to be vaccinated, while 27.4% said they were unwilling — apparently due to concerns over side effects.

The head of the Japan Medical Association, Toshio Nakagawa, on Wednesday called on people to be inoculated when their turn comes, saying, “It’s clear that the merits outweigh the demerits.”

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