COVID-19 vaccinations for older residents will begin on April 12, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday, as the rollout gradually expands beyond health care workers.
Taro Kono, the minister in charge of vaccination efforts, had previously said the government was aiming to start administering shots to people age 65 or above, a group of about 36 million people, on April 1 at the earliest.
Vaccinations of older people will start on a small scale nationwide before ramping up from April 26, Kono said at a news conference Wednesday.
The third shipment of Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE's vaccine has been approved by the European Union and is expected to arrive on March 1, he said. The batch will consist of up to about 520,000 doses depending on what type of syringe is used.
The update to Japan's vaccination schedule comes amid concern that the European Union's new controls on vaccine exports and production delays at Pfizer's factory in Belgium could create supply bottlenecks.
The government has signed a contract to receive 144 million doses from Pfizer, and Kono said he expects supply to increase as the U.S. drugmaker steps up production from April.
Municipalities will begin receiving vaccines for people age 65 or above in the week beginning on April 5, Suga told reporters after meeting with members of his Cabinet, including health minister Norihisa Tamura and Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the government's pandemic response.
Authorities began COVID-19 vaccinations last week after granting fast-track approval to Pfizer's vaccine, starting with an initial group of 40,000 health care workers, half of whom are participating in a study to track potential side effects.
As of Wednesday, about 18,000 people in the country had received the first of two shots.
A further 3.7 million front-line health care workers are to begin being inoculated in March, followed by people age 65 or above. People with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and those working at care facilities for older people will come next, and then finally the general population.
Amid a falling number of daily infections nationwide, meanwhile, the government plans to bring forward the lifting of the coronavirus state of emergency to Sunday for Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Aichi, Fukuoka and Gifu prefectures.
However, the government is considering maintaining the state of emergency in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures until its scheduled end date of March 7, government officials said.
"We will hold a meeting on Friday to hear various opinions from experts and make a judgment," Suga told reporters.
"It's true that the number of infections has been falling sharply and there are requests from governors for an earlier-than-scheduled end (to the state of emergency)," he said.
Earlier Wednesday, a health ministry advisory panel acknowledged that infections were declining nationwide but warned against complacency.
The health ministry panel said infections had fallen under the state of emergency but that the pace of decline had slowed from mid-February, and that continued efforts were needed to bring the pandemic under control. Hospitals remain under pressure but not to the extent they were previously, it said.
Nishimura told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday the government would make a decision based on the advice of experts while making sure the coronavirus is prevented from spreading again in the coming months.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.