Japan has bolstered its arsenal as it races to catch up to other developed nations and inoculate its citizens against COVID-19 amid a fourth wave of infections.
Two more coronavirus vaccines are set to get the green light from a health ministry panel on Friday as Japan aims to beef up its lagging vaccine rollout.
A separate panel of experts on Thursday evaluated the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca PLC and the University of Oxford and another developed by U.S. drugmaker Moderna Inc. Now that the panel has given its approval, the government will be able to give the shots the OK for emergency use on Friday. Prior to the two new approvals, the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE is the only jab being administered in the country.
The approval marks an important milestone in increasing vaccine supplies as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga aims to ramp up vaccinations to 1 million shots a day and finish inoculating the country’s 36 million people age 65 and over by the end of July.
COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna were both nearly 95% effective in late-stage trials overseas and use the same messenger RNA technology, which gives instructions for cells to make a spike protein found on the surface of the coronavirus that the immune system makes antibodies against.
Moderna’s jabs will be used at state-run mass inoculation centers to be launched on Monday in Tokyo and Osaka, both of which are staffed primarily by doctors and nurses of the Self-Defense Forces. Large sites to be set up by several prefectural and municipal governments, including in Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo, will also use the Moderna shot.
Meanwhile, AstraZeneca’s viral vector vaccine was 76% effective in late-stage trials. But about two dozen countries have suspended the use of the British-Swedish drugmaker’s jabs or put restrictions on its usage for younger people due to concerns over very rare blood clots.
The government has not made clear where AstraZeneca’s shots would be allocated, with some reports saying the jabs may be kept in storage for now as the nation has secured enough supplies of the other two vaccines.
AstraZeneca’s vaccines are less likely to cause severe allergic reactions called anaphylaxis in people, but the blood clots remain a worry, said Dr. Tetsuo Nakayama, project professor at Kitasato Institute for Life Sciences.
“Most European countries restrict the usage to older people, so it remains to be seen whether Japan will implement age restrictions,” said Nakayama, who also serves as director of the Japanese Society of Clinical Virology.
All three vaccines need to be administered twice for full protection, and the government is asking people to get the same manufacturer’s vaccine twice. The intervals for the shots are three weeks, four weeks, and four to 12 weeks for the respective shots by Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.
The government is aiming to minimize the impact on municipal governments’ existing distribution network, which uses deep freezers capable of storing Pfizer’s vaccines at minus 75 degrees Celsius. Moderna’s vaccines need to be kept at minus 20 degrees, while the AstraZeneca vaccine can be stored at temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees, about the same as a standard refrigerator.
With the approval of the two shots, vaccine supplies are set to increase sharply. The government has contracted 194 million Pfizer doses, 50 million Moderna jabs and 120 million of AstraZeneca’s. 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 through domestic production.
The nation’s rollout of Pfizer’s vaccines started on Feb. 17 with a total of 7,577,142 shots administered to health care workers and older people as of Wednesday, Cabinet Office data showed. That means that only about 4.2% and 1.9% of the nation’s 126 million residents have received the first and the second jabs, respectively.
The applications for fast-track approval of the vaccines had been submitted by AstraZeneca on Feb. 5 and by Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. on behalf of Moderna on March 5, with approval coming months behind many other countries. The U.K., for example, approved AstraZeneca’s shot in December and Moderna’s vaccine in early January.
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