As fears about the omicron variant of COVID-19 spread, the government is considering more exceptions that would shorten the interval between second and third vaccine shots from eight months to six months, officials have said.
The plan to weigh the change was announced by Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno on Wednesday after the second omicron case was confirmed in the country.
Earlier in the day, Matsuno had said that based on available information, the government could not consider any more exceptions to the eight-month principle for booster shots. The government reversed course, however, apparently because European nations are rushing to administer booster shots amid fears over the omicron variant, and because an increasing number of people in Japan are demanding a quicker rollout.
The government said last month that a six-month interval would be allowed only when a COVID-19 cluster hits hospitals or nursing homes.
Japan's rollout of booster shots kicked off on Wednesday, starting with medical workers.
Japan Medical Association President Toshio Nakagawa met with Noriko Horiuchi, the minister in charge of vaccination, and proposed that booster shots be administered flexibly, starting with municipalities that are ready.
Keiichiro Kobayashi, a professor at Keio University and a member of a panel that advises the government on COVID-19, said that vaccines start to become less effective after five to six months.
The government will need to secure vaccines and find enough personnel to administer the shots to allow the six-month interval for more people. It is expected to receive 120 million doses of Pfizer Inc.'s vaccine next year, but the supply could run dry if inoculations are concentrated early next year.
Municipal officials are concerned about getting ready to give booster shots, already a complicated task under an eight-month interval.
Tokyo Medical University professor Atsuo Hamada also stressed the importance of preparing boosters as soon as possible, at a time when the omicron variant is quickly spreading globally.
Hamada said existing coronavirus vaccines are likely to be effective to some extent against the omicron variant.
"As the omicron variant is a type of the novel coronavirus, existing COVID-19 vaccines, including the one manufactured by U.S. drug giant Pfizer Inc., are expected to be effective to some degree," Hamada said. "It is difficult to foresee how effective the existing vaccines are in preventing infections and the onset of illnesses, but I believe that they have effects in forestalling severe symptoms."
He also said that a sixth wave of infections may occur in Japan between December and January.
As variant strains tend to spread in Japan some three months after they emerge overseas, the delta variant is likely to be the main cause of the possible sixth wave, he said.
"Omicron is not expected to become the main strain until after that," he said.
"In any case, it is important to prepare for the expected spread of infections in the winter by promoting third COVID-19 shots swiftly," Hamada said.
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