An expert panel under the health ministry on Thursday agreed that COVID-19 vaccines should be paid for by the state even after the disease is downgraded to the same legal category as seasonal influenza this spring.

On Friday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to announce the decision to downgrade the disease from the current Class 2 to Class 5 in late April or early May, as part of moves to normalize the nation’s social and economic activities and review state support for a range of pandemic measures.

But COVID-19 vaccines should remain free and available for a little longer, both for people who have never received a shot and for those who want to receive a booster six months after their last shot, said members of the vaccination policy committee chaired by Takaji Wakita, who is also director of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID).