Japan must significantly ramp up the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations or face the prospect of up to four more states of emergency by the end of next March, according to projections by two researchers.

The authors of the study, Dr. Yasuharu Tokuda, director at Muribushi Okinawa Center for Teaching Hospitals, and Toshikazu Kuniya, associate professor of system informatics at Kobe University, made the projection based on a scenario under which an average of 220,000 jabs are given daily — roughly the pace when they were working on the study last month.

At that pace, it would take 1,000 days to inoculate the country’s 110 million residents age 16 and over with two doses each. As of May 13, 5,593,436 shots had been given for an average of about 65,000 jabs per day since the start of the rollout on Feb. 17. Around 286,000 jabs were given on Thursday, bringing the average for the preceding week to about 193,000, as the country begins to ramp up the pace of its inoculations to older people.

The study, which was published on the medRxiv preprint server for health sciences earlier this month and has not been peer-reviewed, assumed that a state of emergency would be declared if the number of daily new infections exceeds 5,000 nationwide and that it would be lifted when it falls below 1,000. The calculations for the curve of the pandemic were based on daily reported cases from Jan. 14, 2020 to April 20, 2021.

Assuming that the several variants of concern, including B.1.1.7, first detected last September in southeast Britain, are 30% more contagious than the original virus, four more states of emergency declarations would be needed, one in July, another in September and one each in November and February, following the current one that remains in place in some parts of the country, the projection showed.

If the pace of inoculations doubles to 440,000 jabs per day, three states of emergency would be needed by next March.

A city official teaches an older man how to use a smartphone to reserve a COVID-19 vaccine shot at a municipal office in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, on Thursday. | KYODO
A city official teaches an older man how to use a smartphone to reserve a COVID-19 vaccine shot at a municipal office in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, on Thursday. | KYODO

When considering the likely spread of more contagious variants, doubling the pace of vaccines “would not be enough to contain it” and more restrictions would be needed, they wrote.

If the pace of vaccinations quadruples to 880,000 jabs per day — which researchers say would be enough to vaccinate 110 million people by the end of next March, only one more state of emergency would be needed. This would be in late July, after which the number of daily infections nationwide would be capped at less than 2,000 around late October to early November and head toward zero around next April, they said.

Such an emergency would likely come around the time Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics, which are currently scheduled to open July 23.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has set a goal of 1 million shots a day as the government looks to deliberate Thursday on emergency use authorizations for vaccines made by U.S. drugmaker Moderna and British drugmaker AstraZeneca PLC.

That would add two more vaccines to Pfizer’s shots, which have been the only vaccines used in the nation’s lagging rollout. The government on Friday signed an additional contract to receive 50 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccines, bringing total contractual supply to 194 million shots, enough to fully vaccinate 97 million people. The additional supplies are due to arrive in Japan by September.

The government aims to finish giving two shots to each of its roughly 36 million people age 65 and over by the end of July, but 14.4% of local governments have said their vaccinations will not be completed by then.

Pharmacists prepare COVID-19 vaccines at the Hyogo Ward office in Kobe on Monday. | KYODO
Pharmacists prepare COVID-19 vaccines at the Hyogo Ward office in Kobe on Monday. | KYODO

The government last month decided to enlist the help of dentists for the vaccination campaign, but Tokuda, who also serves as an adjunct professor of medicine at the University of Tsukuba, said the country needs to loosen the restrictions further to quicken the pace of its rollout.

“Facing this pandemic, the government’s action is too slow and poorly executed,” Tokuda told The Japan Times on Saturday. “Now it should focus on the rapid rollout of vaccination to prevent future devastation. Pharmacists and medical students can be trained as emergency vaccinating personnel.”

Unfortunately, the government’s COVID-19 panel is continuing with its mitigating “With Corona” policy, Tokuda and Kuniya said.

“In fact, as of April 26, the cumulative deaths per 100,000 people was 7.9 in Japan and it was 3.5, 26, and 158 times greater than those of South Korea, China, and Taiwan, respectively,” they wrote.

They also expressed worries that several variants of concern are spreading fast in urban areas of the country.

“Japan is not currently a member in the Zero Covid community,” they said. “In this new stage of the replacement of variants, if the vaccination pace cannot be quadrupled from the current pace, Japan could not become a member of that group, to which many countries of East Asia and Western Pacific regions belong, for at least one year.”

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