• Kyodo, Jiji

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Japan's so-far sluggish COVID-19 vaccination efforts got a boost Monday as the provision of shots at two state-run mass-inoculation centers in Tokyo and Osaka reached full speed just one week after their opening.

The two venues, which are run by Self-Defense Forces personnel and set to operate for three months, met their target of offering up to 10,000 shots in Tokyo and 5,000 in Osaka each day, as Japan seeks to complete the vaccination of those age 65 or older by the end of July.

The centers were opened to help speed up a vaccination program that is also being run by local governments, with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga aiming to administer up to 1 million doses nationwide each day after mid-June.

Japan has fallen behind other developed countries in its vaccine rollout. Since the program was launched in February, only around 6% of the country's 126 million population have received at least one dose.

However, even running at full capacity, the two centers — which are staffed by SDF doctors and nurses as well as nurses not within the force — will only be able to vaccinate 900,000 people in Tokyo and 450,000 in Osaka during the three months of their scheduled operation.

Older people living in Tokyo and the neighboring prefectures of Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa as well as in Osaka and adjoining Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures are eligible to be vaccinated at the centers.

In line with the increase in capacity, the Defense Ministry started Monday accepting reservations from Hyogo and Kyoto for slots in the week starting June 7 at the Osaka center, via its website or the Line message app.

Older people are vaccinated against COVID-19 at the state-run mass vaccination center in Osaka. | KYODO
Older people are vaccinated against COVID-19 at the state-run mass vaccination center in Osaka. | KYODO

The mass vaccination centers are using the two-dose vaccine developed by U.S. biotechnology firm Moderna Inc., while local governments are providing the two-dose vaccine developed by U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. and its German partner BioNTech SE.

Since people who have been administered one dose of the Pfizer vaccine are not allowed to use the SDF-operated venues, the Defense Ministry has urged those who have made bookings for shots at both the state-run centers and local government-run facilities to swiftly cancel one of them.

Although the facilities are located in the central business districts in Tokyo and Osaka, they are not near railway stations, prompting the government to introduce free shuttle buses from nearby transport hubs.

The Tokyo center is located in Otemachi, a central business district with subway services operated by multiple train companies, and about 40 station exits. This makes it hard for senior citizens to get to the venue, which is one reason cited by officials for the slow pace of bookings for the Tokyo center.

While slots at the Osaka venue filled up quickly on the first day bookings opened, it took several days for available reservations at the Tokyo center to be filled.

The Defense Ministry plans to continue offering 35,000 vaccination slots at the Osaka venue and 70,000 at the Tokyo site every week, but it may review the practice.

"If the situation in which Tokyo's slots are not fully booked continues, reviewing the balance between the two venues could become an option," a senior official of the ministry said, suggesting that slots in Tokyo may be reduced to increase those in Osaka.

Meanwhile, in Kobe, local authorities began large-scale inoculations Monday for older residents at Noevir Stadium Kobe, which is home to Japan's pro soccer club Vissel Kobe.

The mass vaccination center is the second to be operated by the municipal government and other entities in Hyogo Prefecture.

The Kobe Municipal Government will administer the Pfizer vaccine to around 1,000 people each day for the time being, but aims to expand capacity to roughly 5,000 by late July.

A large-scale vaccination center opened Monday at Noevir Stadium Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture. | KYODO
A large-scale vaccination center opened Monday at Noevir Stadium Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture. | KYODO

Japan's vaccination program was launched initially for front-line health workers and expanded to those 65 and older in April.

The government had planned to vaccinate people with underlying conditions next along with those working at nursing homes, after finishing vaccinating older people.

But health minister Norihisa Tamura said Sunday that the vaccination rollout for people under the age of 65 will be carried out at the same time as those with underlying conditions, to help speed up the process.

While those with underlying conditions will generally be given priority, "if we wait until everyone (with underlying conditions) has been vaccinated, we don't know when it will be completed," Tamura said on a program aired by public broadcaster NHK.

Those with underlying conditions will need to report to municipalities independently, as the government has no data available regarding exactly how many people fall under the criteria.

To further accelerate the inoculation drive, the central government is also considering administering Moderna's vaccine at workplaces, Tamura said.

With the medical system remaining under severe strain in the midst of a fourth wave of infections, the COVID-19 state of emergency in Tokyo, Osaka and seven other prefectures was extended Friday by three weeks to June 20 — just over a month before the Olympics are set to begin in the capital.

The state of emergency may be lifted before its scheduled June 20 expiration depending on the infection situation, but "measures must continue to be taken even after it is lifted to prevent a resurgence," Tamura said.

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