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Local governments across the nation are making efforts not to waste COVID-19 vaccine, after it emerged some leftover doses had been discarded since vaccinations for older people began a week ago.

Some municipalities have made their own rules so that vaccines allocated for older people can be administered to medical workers if any doses are left over due to cancellations of vaccination appointments.

Inoculation of medical personnel, the first priority group, started in February and has yet to be completed. Some critics say Japan should have completed vaccinating the group before starting to inoculate older people.

After learning about the disposal of unused COVID-19 vaccine doses, Taro Kono, minister in charge of the vaccine rollout, called on local governments not to waste them.

"It's completely fine to administer them to people from other cities or prefectures," Kono said last week.

"There's no restriction at all. I want all doses administered, for sure," Kono said, stressing that leftover vaccine could be given to anyone, regardless of how old they were, where they lived and whether they had tickets to receive the vaccine.

He made the remarks after the city of Hachioji, in western Tokyo, discarded vaccine doses on April 12 for two people who canceled their appointments. The city has decided to administer leftover vaccine to medical personnel in the future.

A doctor administers a COVID-19 vaccine at a nursing home in Kawasaki on April 12. | BLOOMBERG
A doctor administers a COVID-19 vaccine at a nursing home in Kawasaki on April 12. | BLOOMBERG

A Hachioji official, however, expressed some concerns, saying, "The risk of cancellations will increase as inoculations go into full swing in May."

In the city of Kyoto, which has started vaccinating older people at care facilities, doses for three people were thrown away over the two days from April 12.

"We'll discuss with medical associations and others so that leftover vaccine will be shared flexibly," a Kyoto official said, noting that the number of medical and other facilities providing vaccine shots is set to increase.

Some local government workers are skeptical about Kono's approach.

"He says it's OK to give (leftover doses) to those without vaccination tickets and even to young people, but I wonder if it would be possible to manage the vaccinations properly," an official of a city government said.

Due to delays in the inoculation of medical workers, vaccines for older people has been diverted to medical workers in many municipalities.

The city of Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture, has procured vaccines for about 1,000 older people. But it plans to use about 300 of the shots to inoculate doctors and other medical workers assigned to give vaccine shots at care facilities.

"We cannot carry out vaccinations for older people smoothly if doctors and nurses get infected," a city official said.

Prefectural governors are critical of the central government's vaccination program.

At a meeting of the National Governors' Association last week, a participant said, "The desirable way would have been completing inoculations of medical workers first and then starting vaccinations of older people." Many others expressed similar views.

After the meeting, Tokushima Gov. Kamon Iizumi, president of the association, expressed his concerns.

"A sense of confusion will spread among municipalities on the front line of inoculations," Iizumi told reporters.

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