• Reuters, staff report

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Japanese business leaders and a Nobel Prize-winning biologist have called upon the government to reform its vaccination program, including by allowing drive-thru inoculations, as the nation struggles to contain a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Japan has secured the largest quantity of COVID-19 vaccines in Asia as it gears up for the summer Olympics. But it has inoculated only 1.6% of its population so far, the slowest among wealthy countries.

Twenty-four business leaders, including e-commerce group Rakuten's CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, and Nobel-winning stem cell biologist Shinya Yamanaka said a bolder and better coordinated effort was needed to speed up vaccinations.

"The government and local administrations must not be constrained by outdated thinking and must make effective use of private sector expertise," they said in a statement Wednesday.

They urged the government to simplify vaccine application procedures, quicken administration of vaccines by allowing them to be done at large-scale facilities and through a drive-thru system, and seek the cooperation of medical experts.

The proposals also called for the government to manage vaccination records to encourage residents and visitors from outside Japan who have been inoculated to resume economic activities.

Government officials were not immediately available for comment Thursday, a national holiday in Japan.

Rakuten's Mikitani, who is also the representative director of the Japan Association of New Economy (JANE), has said it is "too risky" to hold the Tokyo Games this summer. Japan is currently struggling with a fourth wave of the pandemic.

Supporters of the proposals included the Japan Medical Association President Yoshitake Yokokura, furniture chain Nitori Holdings Co.'s CEO Akio Nitori and Takeshi Niinami, head of beverage group Suntory Holdings.

The organization also called on the government to implement special emergency vaccine approval procedures based on safety and efficacy data from Europe, North America and other countries.

The country began its vaccination push in February, later than most major economies, and was dependent on scarce initial supplies of the Pfizer vaccine flown in from Europe. Vaccine czar Taro Kono has said that municipalities have requested a slower rollout to give them time to set up inoculation centers and notify residents.

As of Tuesday, Japan had administered about 3.2 million doses to medical workers and older people.

But as imports have started to ramp up, other bottlenecks have become apparent, mainly in terms of manpower. Regulations say that only doctors or nurses can administer the injections. The health ministry last week decided that dentists may also deliver shots.

There are signs the government is feeling the heat to speed up its vaccine push. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga this week tasked the Defense Ministry with setting up a mass inoculation site in central Tokyo by May 24.

But the vaccination push has come too late to blunt a fourth wave of infections. The government declared a third state of emergency in its major population centers on Sunday, less than three months before the scheduled start of the Tokyo Olympics.

Japan expects to have more than enough doses in hand by June to fully vaccinate its sizeable older population. But there is still no timetable for when the general population will receive the shots, with some health experts expecting it could take until the winter or longer.

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