• AFP-Jiji

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The government said Tuesday an investigation would be launched after more than 1,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses had to be thrown out when a freezer storing them malfunctioned.

A medical institution reported that 172 vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which must be kept at between minus 80 and minus 60 degrees Celsius, were rendered useless after the freezer breakdown over the weekend, the health ministry said, wasting up to 1,032 doses.

Japan began its inoculation program on February 17 — just over five months before the Tokyo Olympics — and has so far only approved the Pfizer/BioNTech drug.

Top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said Tuesday that the cause of the malfunction was not yet clear, but the firm that installed the freezer would investigate and report back.

Kato said Japan had installed around 100 vaccine freezers nationwide by the end of February.

"We would like to respond quickly on whatever is necessary, based on the results of the investigation carried out by the company that installed it," Kato said.

Vaccinations for health care workers began in mid-February, with Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the process, admitting he had "no idea" how much of the population would receive the jab before the Olympics, set to start on July 23.

As of Monday, first doses had been administered to nearly 32,000 doctors and nurses, according to Kono.

The country has reached deals with three major drug firms to buy enough doses for its population of 126 million.

But it was also scrambling to secure enough of the special syringes needed to extract six full doses from each vial of the Pfizer vaccine.

Japan is running a cautious rollout program, and is planning to initially vaccinate 40,000 health care workers across the country before administering jabs to around 3.7 million more in March.

Vaccinations for around 36 million people age 65 or older are set to start from April.

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