In a bid to speed up Japan’s slow-moving immunization program against COVID-19, the central government said Tuesday it will set up a large-scale vaccination site in Tokyo, where medically licensed Self-Defense Forces personnel are expected to administer Moderna Inc. and AstraZeneca PLC vaccines.

About 900,000 people age 65 or older residing in the capital and neighboring Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures are expected to mainly use the center, according to Kyodo News.

Given the recent spread of a new, more contagious strain of the virus in Osaka, “vaccinating as many people as possible — and doing so as soon as possible — will help ease the strain being put on the medical system,” state minister and vaccine rollout czar Taro Kono said during a news conference.

“Since the new variant is causing younger people to suffer from serious conditions as well, it is important that older people get vaccinated as soon as possible so we can shift our focus to those with underlying conditions,” he said. “The government will support municipalities in this effort with a sense of urgency.”

The envisaged venue in Tokyo, to be launched May 24, will reportedly be capable of inoculating up to 10,000 visitors a day. This far exceeds the capacity of vaccination sites currently operated by municipalities across the nation, which are generally designed to accommodate about 280 people a day, according to the health ministry.

While those facilities run by municipalities are relying exclusively on shots developed by Pfizer Inc. together with BioNTech SE — at the moment the only approved vaccine in Japan — the state-run center is looking to tap into Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines as soon as they are approved, Kono said.

Kono said the government is considering setting up a similar large-scale site in Osaka, but that details have yet to be hammered out.

The establishment of the special venue is part of a broader push by the government to speed up inoculations in Japan, which are significantly lagging behind other developed countries.

Currently less than 1% of the population has been fully vaccinated, one of the lowest levels among developed countries. Vaccinations for health care workers started in February, with some local governments having moved forward with inoculating people age 65 or older earlier this month.

A vaccination site in Hachioji, Tokyo. Japan is significantly lagging behind other developed countries in terms of its vaccination rollout. | POOL / VIA KYODO
A vaccination site in Hachioji, Tokyo. Japan is significantly lagging behind other developed countries in terms of its vaccination rollout. | POOL / VIA KYODO

The new Tokyo site, to be set up at a government office building in Chiyoda Ward, will chiefly rely on the SDF’s medical staff, including doctors and nurses, for staffing. Their re-assignment from SDF duties means the site cannot be operated indefinitely, and it is set to be closed after about three months, Kono said.

The minister said that since municipalities are already preoccupied with the rollout of the Pfizer vaccine, the state-run center in Tokyo would instead focus on the Moderna and AstraZeneca shots, increasing the importance of their swift approval. Kono, however, didn’t rule out the possibility of Pfizer shots being used at the center after all if approvals for the other two vaccines are delayed for some reason.

Since different lengths of time between doses are required for each type — three weeks for the Pfizer vaccine and four weeks for those by Moderna and AstraZeneca — those who receive the first dose at the envisioned Tokyo center are expected to revisit the facility for the second shot, the minister said.

Japan has so far administered nearly 3 million shots for health care workers and 94,000 for older people.

With the nation expecting a ramping up of vaccine supplies through the weekly arrival of nearly 10 million doses from May onward, Kono said Japan will soon be able to shift gears and proceed at full pace with an inoculation program that won’t be compromised by a supply shortage.

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