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Taro Kono, Japan’s former vaccine chief, has said the government should speed up its rollout of COVID-19 booster shots as the omicron variant spreads, criticizing the pace set by the health ministry.

Kono’s comments, made in an interview Wednesday in Tokyo, came just after Japan confirmed the first cases of community transmission of the omicron variant, in the western prefecture of Osaka.

“Speed matters more than fairness and now omicron is coming in, so we should be doing it as fast as possible,” he said, dismissing a government plan that requires an interval of eight months between second and third doses for most people. “Why wait for eight months? No reason.”

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has promised to expedite the booster rollout slightly, saying health workers and some vulnerable elderly people will get their doses after six months, while other seniors will receive theirs after seven months. Just 0.2% of the population has received a booster so far, according to official data, compared with about 24% in South Korea and the European Union.

While Japan has weathered the pandemic far better than most wealthy countries, a slow start to the initial vaccine rollout led to a surge of cases over the summer, straining the health care system. Public anxiety undermined support for Kishida’s predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who stepped down in September.

The country has more recently enjoyed a respite from the worst of the disease, with the daily death toll remaining in single figures for weeks. Yet with boosters still months away for the bulk of the population, Japan risks a resurgence like those seen in many parts of the world — including in neighboring South Korea, which has slashed waiting time for boosters to three months.

Japan recorded 262 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, according to public broadcaster NHK — the highest since late October.

Kono said the country already had about 56 million vaccine doses on hand and was expecting another 78 million to arrive in the first quarter of 2022 — enough to cover the whole population of about 125 million.

A former foreign minister and defense minister, the outspoken Kono ran unsuccessfully against Kishida for the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and now serves as its head of public relations. Kono asks that his name be written in the Japanese style with family name first.

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