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The health ministry has asked all prefectures to actively consider setting up mass inoculation centers using U.S. drugmaker Moderna Inc.’s COVID-19 shot as the government looks to quickly ramp up the vaccine rollout amid signs of an explosive rise in new variant cases.

With the approval of a second and a third vaccine for emergency use expected in less than two weeks, the government is aiming to minimize the impact to municipal governments’ existing vaccine networks. These networks have been using U.S. drugmaker Pfizer Inc.’s vaccines, but the new vaccines made by Moderna and British drugmaker AstraZeneca PLC would need to be handled and stored differently.

The government is planning to allocate Moderna’s vaccines to planned state-run mass inoculation centers at government sites in Tokyo and Osaka on May 24. The mass vaccination sites nationwide would also use Moderna’s vaccines.

Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the rollout, said Friday that Gunma and Aichi prefectures would set up their own mass inoculation centers, adding that some other prefectural governors have also expressed interest in doing the same.

Japan has faced criticism over its rollout — the slowest among the developed countries — but Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is hoping to rectify the situation. Suga said Friday that the government was aiming to finish giving a second round of shots to 36 million people age 65 and over by the end of July after ramping up the jabs to 1 million a day.

The key to that scenario will be the authorization of vaccines made by Moderna and British drugmaker AstraZeneca PLC for emergency use. The health ministry is set to deliberate on the matter on May 20, according to domestic media reports.

People walk past closed shops in Tokyo's Asakusa district on Friday amid the ongoing coronavirus state of emergency. | REUTERS
People walk past closed shops in Tokyo’s Asakusa district on Friday amid the ongoing coronavirus state of emergency. | REUTERS

The ministry said the potential mass inoculation centers should be able to administer the vaccines for two to three months. It is looking for sites where sufficient numbers of health care workers could be secured without adversely impacting the surrounding areas’ medical systems or vaccine rollouts, the health ministry’s inoculation office said in a letter to all prefectural governments Friday.

The health ministry said the government plans to subsidize any fees, rent or necessary materials using grants from a coronavirus emergency aid package.

Based on plans by prefectural governments to be submitted by next Thursday, the health ministry will arrange for the distribution of freezers capable of storing Moderna’s vaccines at minus 20 degrees Celsius and the necessary doses for shipments, it added. The AstraZeneca vaccine can be stored at temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees, about the same as inside a standard refrigerator.

The government had earlier distributed deep freezers capable of storing Pfizer’s vaccines at minus 75 degrees Celsius.

The state-run inoculation centers to be set up at the Otemachi Common Government Building No. 3 in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward and at the Osaka International Convention Center in the city of the same name, are set to operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day for three months from May 24, with a target of vaccinating at least 10,000 people per day at each site.

Doctors and nurses from the Self-Defense Forces are slated to be deployed to the state-run centers, but the government has no plans to send them to the planned prefectural government sites.

Ahead of the official authorization, the first doses of Moderna’s vaccines were imported to Japan from Belgium on April 30, while AstraZeneca has been manufacturing its vaccine in Japan with plans to meet the majority of its contractual commitment of 120 million doses through production in Japan.

The rollout of Pfizer’s vaccines started in mid-February with a total of 4,197,463 shots administered to health care workers and the elderly as of Thursday, Cabinet Office data showed.

The government is facing criticism after reports emerged saying that Japan has so far administered just a fraction of the 28 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine it had imported as of the end of April.

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