Japan outlines cautious vaccine schedule ahead of first shots

Japan hopes to begin jabs for the elderly in April, said Taro Kono, the minister in charge of Covid-19 vaccinations
Japan hopes to begin jabs for the elderly in April, said Taro Kono, the minister in charge of Covid-19 vaccinations Kazuhiro NOGI AFP
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Tokyo (AFP)

Japan outlined a cautious coronavirus vaccine rollout Tuesday, a day before inoculations begin, with the minister overseeing the process admitting he had "no idea" how much of the population will be vaccinated by this summer's Olympics.

About 40,000 targeted healthcare workers will receive their first jabs starting Wednesday, around double the previously reported number as more people than expected agree to get vaccinated.

The government hopes to begin jabs for the elderly in April, minister Taro Kono said, but he was unable to offer details about the schedule beyond that point.

"I want many people to receive the vaccine, once we have an accurate understanding of the benefits and risks," he told reporters.

"We have been focusing on how to smoothly vaccinate the elderly, so we haven't yet been strategically thinking about future" shots for young people, he added.

Japan has reached deals with three major pharmaceutical firms to buy enough Covid-19 vaccine doses for its population of 126 million.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Sunday became the first shot approved for use in Japan -- which has lagged behind other major economies as it is running domestic trials before giving each jab the green light.

Around half of the 40,000 healthcare workers being vaccinated from Wednesday will have their health carefully monitored for around a month after receiving their second dose, to check for side effects.

When asked about the vaccine timeline ahead of the Olympics, Kono said his priority was co-ordinating the rollout with local authorities in Japan.

"I'm not really taking the Olympics into my consideration. I need to roll out the vaccine as I get the supply from Europe," he said.

A target for broader vaccination has yet to be decided given the challenges in confirming a supply schedule, he added, admitting he had "no idea" how many Japanese will be vaccinated by the Games.

Kono said Japan has enough special syringes capable of extracting a full six doses per vial for the first 40,000 people, but is trying to secure more for later vaccinations.

Japan has so far received more than 60,000 vials of Pfizer vaccine, Kono said, with a second shipment due from the EU next week.