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Japan began administering COVID-19 booster shots to health care workers nationwide on Wednesday as the country braces for the potential impact of the omicron variant, a concerning new strain of the coronavirus that scientists worldwide are scrambling to research.

Five doctors and 13 nurses at the state-run Tokyo Medical Center in Meguro Ward received their third jabs Wednesday morning. The hospital’s director, Kazuhiro Araki, who got the shot, said he feels relieved that the rollout began as scheduled.

Medical personnel at Tokyo Medical University’s Hachioji Medical Center and some hospitals in Aichi and Saitama prefectures, among other facilities, also received their third shots.

“Amid the possibility of a sixth wave, I cannot help but get the third jab,” nurse Narumi Tokoi, 32, who works at Kodaira Hospital in Toda, Saitama Prefecture, said, according to Kyodo News.

Third shots will be administered free of charge to all residents age 18 and older at least eight months after their second doses, in principle. So far, only the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech vaccine has been authorized, and it can be given regardless of whether an individual’s initial vaccine was made by Pfizer, Moderna Inc. or AstraZeneca PLC. The government is aiming to make Moderna’s booster shot available as well.

Pfizer vaccine doses for booster shots at Tokyo Medical Center in Meguro Ward on Wednesday | POOL
Pfizer vaccine doses for booster shots at Tokyo Medical Center in Meguro Ward on Wednesday | POOL

Some prefectural governors have made a request to the government that they be given flexibility to shorten the waiting period after second doses to six months, in line with the practice in some European countries and the U.S. But due to insufficient vaccine supplies, the government has maintained that exceptions will only be made in limited cases such as for patients, residents and workers at health care facilities and nursing homes hit by clusters of infections.

The government says all eligible residents should get the vaccine, and the health ministry highly recommends a booster for elderly people and those with medical conditions who are at a higher risk of developing serious symptoms of COVID-19. Nursing and health care workers who are at a higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus are also strongly advised to get a booster shot.

The booster shots will be available to the general public beginning with the elderly in January. While the government initially planned to finish its yearlong coronavirus vaccination program at the end of February 2022, the health ministry says eligible residents who previously decided to skip the jab will be able to use their vaccination tickets to get the shot until Sept. 30.

Japan confirmed its second case involving the omicron variant, a “variant of concern” that has about 30 mutations to its spike protein, on Wednesday. The National Institute of Infectious Diseases says that the fact that it quickly replaced the supercontagious delta variant, the current dominant strain of the pandemic, in South Africa raises worries about its transmissibility and could indicate a significant decline in the efficacy of the currently available vaccines.

But BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin has reportedly said that the firm’s vaccine will likely offer strong protection against any severe disease from the omicron variant. Studies have shown that the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against infection wanes over half a year. Experts say current vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death.

“Though a two-shot vaccination gives an efficacy of over 90% against serious illness, hospitalization and death, data in Japan has shown that the rate of breakthrough infections begins to rise gradually after six months,” said Tetsuo Nakayama, a project professor at Kitasato Institute for Life Sciences and director of the Japanese Society of Clinical Virology.

Amid a possible decline in the vaccine’s efficacy and worries over a rise in breakthrough infections, the sooner people get the booster shot — especially elderly people and others at a higher risk who received their second shots more than six months ago — the better, he added.

A medical worker gets a booster shot on Wednesday at Tokyo Medical Center in Meguro Ward. | POOL
A medical worker gets a booster shot on Wednesday at Tokyo Medical Center in Meguro Ward. | POOL

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