Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga received his first dose of Pfizer Inc.'s COVID-19 vaccine at a Tokyo hospital on Tuesday, getting the shot in front of cameras to reassure the Japanese public about its safety.
Suga is being vaccinated as part of preparations to visit the United States next month, when he will become the first world leader to meet in person with President Joe Biden.
By receiving the shot in front of cameras, Suga took a cue from other world leaders who have used it as an opportunity to build confidence in COVID-19 vaccines, including Biden, 78, who did so in December before taking office.
"It didn't hurt, it went smoothly," Suga told reporters after getting the shot at the National Center for Global Health and Medicine in Tokyo. "Vaccinations are an extremely important part of measures against the coronavirus, and we have to deliver these vaccine doses to the people in Japan as soon as possible."
Public skepticism toward vaccinations could hamper Japan's vaccine rollout, with only 63.1% of respondents in a Kyodo News poll conducted last month saying they want to be inoculated and 27.4% saying they do not.
Suga has pledged to secure enough COVID-19 vaccines for Japan's population of 126 million within the first half of this year, though the effort has been held up by production delays and the European Union's export controls, as well as difficulty in procuring low dead space syringes that can extract more doses per vial.
The initial focus of Japan's vaccine rollout has been health care workers, with the rest of the population waiting for their turn.
Before the summit was set, Suga, who is 72, had said he would wait until people age 65 or older become eligible in mid-April. He is slated to get the second dose in three weeks before departing for Washington. The trip will likely last for three days from April 8, government sources said.
To lower the risk of spreading the coronavirus, he will travel with a small entourage, all of whom will receive both shots before departure, according to the sources.
The trip will also be kept short with as few events as possible, the sources said.
Suga had indicated his hope to visit the United States "as soon as possible" for a meeting with Biden. The leaders held a virtual meeting last week with their Australian and Indian counterparts, in which they agreed to cooperate to expand COVID-19 vaccine production for developing countries.
The leaders are set to discuss efforts to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific amid China's growing economic and military influence in the region, as well as global issues including the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.
For Suga, whose administration has suffered from low approval ratings amid criticism of its sluggish response to the pandemic and is currently being battered by a string of ethics code violations at the communications ministry, it will be an opportunity to demonstrate his diplomatic skills.
Marking exactly six months since taking office last September, the prime minister stressed Tuesday that the administration has been hard at work bringing down infection rates as well as implementing key policies such as lowering mobile phone fees and expanding support for fertility treatment.
"We've placed top priority on preventing the spread of the coronavirus so people can return to living safe, secure lives as soon as possible," he said.
As for a general election which must be held by October, when the current term for the House of Representatives members ends, Suga said he would consider the timing of dissolving the chamber after "taking a good look at the situation."
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