• Kyodo

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A 42-year-old mayor in Ibaraki Prefecture came under scrutiny Thursday after being inoculated against COVID-19 ahead of older people, in the latest such incident that could raise questions about the fairness of vaccine distribution amid the country’s sluggish rollout.

Shirosato Mayor Osamu Katono told a news conference he received his first dose on April 28 along with other town officials, explaining that appointments for health care workers had been canceled that day and that the doses would otherwise have gone to waste.

Katono also said he was “equivalent” to a health care worker because he oversees the vaccination site located next to the town hall. “If the mayor, the one who gives the orders, gets infected, it would cause confusion. I don’t see a problem with it,” he said.

Japan began inoculating people age 65 or older last month, following the vaccine rollout for health-care workers in February. The mayor’s move could draw a backlash as many seniors have been unable to secure bookings by phone or online due to the slow progress in the vaccination program.

Deputy Mayor Fujio Nakata, 65, and the head of the town’s education board, Hideo Takaoka, 65, also received their first doses of Pfizer Inc.’s vaccine together with the mayor. Katono plans to get his second shot later this month.

Nakata later told reporters he was “sorry” because health-care workers and senior citizens should have been given priority.

The incident follows that of Sogo Yamana, the 62-year-old mayor of Kamikawa in Hyogo Prefecture, who was inoculated on May 6 with a dose that would otherwise have gone unused due to a cancellation. He said Wednesday he received the jab for the sake of the town’s “crisis management.”

On Tuesday, the deputy mayor of Nishio in Aichi Prefecture apologized after giving priority reservations for COVID-19 vaccinations to the 70-year-old head of a major pharmacy chain and his 67-year-old wife.

Japan’s vaccination program has lagged behind those in other countries, including Israel, the U.K. and the United States. With less than three months until the Tokyo Olympics, only around 3% of its population has received at least one dose.

While only the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for use on people age 16 and older so far, the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga hopes approving Moderna Inc.’s vaccine, possibly later this month, will speed up the process.

Japan received its second shipment of the Moderna vaccine on Thursday, the U.S. biotechnology firm’s partner Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. said. The shipment was part of a supply agreement for 50 million doses by the end of September.

Meanwhile, Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the government’s vaccine rollout, called on Keidanren, the country’s powerful business lobby, to cooperate in inoculating workers and their older family members by setting up vaccination sites within companies and making it easier for staff to take days off.

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