• Kyodo

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Japan accelerated on Monday its rollout of coronavirus vaccines with the aim of completely inoculating all people age 65 or older by the end of July amid a fourth wave of infections.

Over the next two weeks starting Monday, the government will send vaccines to municipalities to administer shots to over 9 million people, covering a quarter of the nation’s population age 65 or over of about 36 million and plans to distribute vaccines for the entire population of such people by the end of June.

Japan lags behind other advanced countries in its vaccine rollout, with only some 240,000 of older people having received the first of two shots as of Thursday, according to government data.

A total of about 390 municipalities will launch the vaccination program in a seven-day period starting Monday, the largest number per week, starting with around 120 local governments on the first day, the health ministry said.

In an effort to secure telephone lines for emergency calls even when calls to make a reservation flood the lines, major Japanese telecom companies have imposed a temporary restriction on the number of incoming calls to local governments accepting reservations.

On Monday, the city of Shunan in Yamaguchi Prefecture started administrating doses to eligible people at a vacant store of a local shopping mall.

“I was relieved to finally be inoculated. I’m about to cry,” said Seiichi Aoki, 99, who received his first shot in Shunan.

Prefectural governors agreed during an online conference Monday to call on the central government to step up efforts to complete the inoculation for older people by the end of July.

The National Governors’ Association will also urge the government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to call on people to take tougher anti-virus measures as highly contagious variants of the virus are on the rise, putting a strain on the nationwide health care system.

Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the country’s vaccination efforts, told a Diet session, “We will continue to listen to the requests of local governments and provide appropriate support.”

Japan began inoculating its people age 65 or older, or some 29% of its population, on April 12, after starting its campaign with health care workers on Feb. 17.

Meanwhile, Suga said Monday the government needs to speed up the process of approving clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccines at a time when Japanese drugmakers have lost ground to foreign rivals.

“We need to consider revising the system, to approve (trials) more quickly,” Suga said at a House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting.

In Japan, Shionogi & Co. and several other companies have been developing coronavirus vaccines, but large-scale clinical studies have been a major hurdle to getting domestic vaccines approved and on the market.

In order to gain approval, a vaccine needs to pass a clinical study involving tens of thousands of participants in which its safety and efficacy is assessed, but due to the relatively low number of community coronavirus infections in Japan, the effectiveness of the vaccines is difficult to evaluate.

In addition, inoculation programs using vaccines developed by U.S. and European companies are already underway in Japan and elsewhere, reducing demand.

As more people gain resilience against the virus with the progress of the vaccination programs and the spread of infections, it is expected to become increasingly difficult to recruit a sufficient number of test subjects who hold no immunity.

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