As recently as a month ago, the dominant narrative surrounding Japan’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout drive was that it was exceedingly sluggish. Now, it has evolved into something of a comeback story.

A raft of efforts by the central government to speed up the campaign have finally paid off over the past few weeks, bringing the nation ever closer to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s goal of administering 1 million shots a day by the end of July, an aspiration that at one time appeared to be a pipe dream.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Suga boasted about the “extremely fast” pace at which the rollout is currently proceeding, noting that 20 million people had received at least one dose of the vaccine so far.

In a new phase of the rollout, vaccinations at workplaces and universities are set to ramp up Monday, adding further impetus to the inoculation drive and expanding it more broadly to the general population. On Friday evening, the government estimated nearly 14 million people will be immunized under the framework.

The nation’s rollout had initially been constrained by a shortage of vaccine supplies from February until April. Even after May, when doses became more readily available, many municipalities struggled to procure enough medical personnel to perform vaccinations.

Today, the world’s third largest economy still lags other wealthy countries in the rate of the vaccinated population — 16.4% were either partly or fully vaccinated as of Friday, which compares with 47% in France, 50% in Germany and 52.3% in the United States, according to figures compiled by researchers on the website Our World in Data.

Still, the past few weeks have seen the pace of Japan’s rollout accelerate, with the number of daily shots administered to older residents now standing at about 800,000 — nearly triple what it was about a month ago.

The uptick can be attributed to a series of initiatives implemented by the Suga government, not to mention the great lengths to which it has gone to pressure municipalities to take things up a notch.

A man gets an injection of a COVID-19 vaccine at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office in the capital Friday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
A man gets an injection of a COVID-19 vaccine at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office in the capital Friday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

For one thing, the government has addressed concerns among municipalities over a dearth of staff by adding personnel such as dentists, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and clinical laboratory technicians to a list of medical professionals eligible to administer shots. In a bid to incentivize giving vaccinations, it has also upped remunerations for medical institutions that actively administer them.

In late May, two mass-vaccination sites staffed by the Self-Defense Forces opened in Tokyo and Osaka. Having originally catered exclusively to older residents, the twin SDF-run sites are now open to those age 18 or older, too, provided they have received their vaccine coupons sent by municipalities.

Consistent throughout all of this has been Suga’s uncompromising attitude toward local governments, which play a pivotal role in the rollout.

In late April, when the rollout was still crawling along, Suga unveiled what was then considered an ambitious goal of completing vaccinations of all older residents by the end of July. Two weeks later he vowed to ramp up the daily number of shots given to 1 million.

Under his leadership, ministry officials reached out to municipalities that were particularly slow, cracking the whip and eliciting their commitment to meeting the July deadline.

In an announcement that likely heaped further pressure on municipalities, Suga also declared earlier this month that all residents who wish to get vaccinated can expect to get their shots by November.

“When it comes to vaccines, the government has been all gung-ho, falling over itself to speed up the process,” said Tetsuya Matsumoto, a professor of public health studies who specializes in infectious diseases at the International University of Health and Welfare Graduate School. “Some municipalities may have felt that they were being stretched thin and given too demanding a deadline.”

A cabin crew member of Japan Airlines receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on the first day of the company's workplace vaccination campaign at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on June 14. | AFP-JIJI
A cabin crew member of Japan Airlines receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on the first day of the company’s workplace vaccination campaign at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on June 14. | AFP-JIJI

But given the importance of infection control and vaccinations, Suga’s approach, heavy-handed as it may have been, was perhaps the right way forward after all and can be credited for the accelerated pace, the professor said.

In fact, the latest result of a joint survey by the health and internal affairs ministries reportedly found that all of the country’s 1,741 municipalities are now confident that they can finish the full immunization of older residents by the end of July.

But while the rollout continues to pick up speed, it remains to be seen how much longer this trend will continue. Matsumoto, for one, said the issue of vaccine hesitancy could emerge as a bottleneck going forward.

In countries such as the U.S. and Israel, vaccination paces slid after certain percentages of the population were immunized, highlighting the twin challenges of how to allay fears among those who are skeptical about vaccines and how to immunize those with poor access to shots.

Japan, whose cautious vaccine policy stems from a bitter history with immunizations and a spate of lawsuits over side-effects, has its share of vaccine-hesitant individuals. A global survey by Imperial College London and data analysis firm YouGov showed in May that among the 15 counties polled, Japan and South Korea had the lowest share of respondents who said they “trust” COVID-19 vaccines at 47%.

But, as time passes and more individuals get their shots, this figure could shift.

“My hope is that in three or four months’ time, the attitude of those hesitant, including young people, will change as they see more and more of their friends or family members get vaccinated,” Matsumoto said.

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