Japan is poised to buy more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, a move that would pave the way for the country to immunize its adult population without using any of the shots it purchased from AstraZeneca PLC, which have been linked to rare blood clots.
Pfizer is expected to provide an additional 50 million doses by September in a contract that could be agreed on this month, government sources said Wednesday.
Together with existing agreements with Pfizer for 144 million doses and Moderna Inc. for 50 million doses, Japan is now set to procure enough vaccines for its roughly 110 million people age 16 or older.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said Wednesday that the government and Pfizer are still discussing the additional doses, and declined to comment further. Officials have said Japan will secure enough vaccine supply, including approved and unapproved shots, for all its residents by September.
The move comes as more nations are vying for jabs from Pfizer and Moderna, which use a novel mRNA technology that has been proven safe and highly effective. Shots developed by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, built using a different viral vector technology, have come under the spotlight recently after regulators temporarily halted their use to investigate links to rare but potentially deadly blood clots.
The European Union earlier this week tapped into an option in its contract with Pfizer and BioNTech to buy an additional 100 million doses. While Japan wasn’t known to have a similar deal, the agreement came after a phone call between Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Pfizer Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla last weekend during Suga’s state visit to the United States — the first by a foreign leader since President Joe Biden took office.
Currently, only the Pfizer vaccine is cleared for use in Japan. Moderna and AstraZeneca have filed for approval, but a decision is not expected until May at the earliest. A report this week suggested that the AstraZeneca approval may be delayed as regulators request more information on the blood clots. Japan’s deal with AstraZeneca is for 120 million shots, many of which are already being manufactured domestically.
Despite the pauses, many experts and regulators continue to recommend the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson shots, saying their benefits outweigh the risks. But the publicity around the possible side effects could exacerbate concerns about the shots and slow their use in countries like Japan that have high vaccine hesitancy rates.
Relying mainly on the Pfizer shot could simplify Japan’s vaccine rollout, which has been the slowest among the Group of Seven nations. The current approach, done through local municipalities, is designed for the Pfizer jab, Taro Kono, the Cabinet minister in charge of the vaccine program, said during a news conference Friday.
The Moderna shots “need a different deep freezer than Pfizer, and they have a different date between the first and second shots,” Kono said. “We don’t want to confuse the municipalities.”
A little over 1.2 million health care workers and around 19,000 people aged 65 or older had received at least one shot of the two required shots as of Monday, according to government data, covering around 1% of the country’s population.
Pressure to hasten the effort has intensified as a new state of emergency is set to be declared in Tokyo, Osaka and Hyogo with the Tokyo Olympics less than 100 days away. The government’s current target date for completing its vaccination effort is February 2022.
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