Mon | Mar 1, 2021

Japan vaccination uncertainty casts doubts over Olympics

Published:Friday | January 22, 2021 | 10:00 AM
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a meeting of the coronavirus infection control headquarters at his office in Tokyo Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. Suga, in a speech earlier, said the vaccine is “the clincher” in the fight against the pandemic and vowed to start vaccinations as soon as late February. (Kazuhiro Nogi/Pool Photo via AP)

TOKYO (AP) — Japan is publicly adamant that it will stage its postponed Olympics this summer. But to pull it off, many believe the vaccination of its 127 million citizens for the coronavirus is key.

It’s an immense undertaking in the best of circumstances and complicated now by an overly cautious decision-making process, bureaucratic roadblocks and a public that has long been deeply wary of vaccines.

Japan hopes to start COVID-19 vaccinations in late February, but uncertainty is growing that a nation ranked among the world’s lowest in vaccine confidence can pull off the massive, $14 billion project in time for the games in July, casting doubt on whether the Tokyo Olympics can happen.

Japan has secured vaccines for all its citizens, and then some, after striking deals with three foreign pharmaceutical makers — Pfizer Inc., AstraZeneca and Moderna Inc. Its swift action was seen as proof of its resolve to stage the games after a one-year postponement because of the pandemic.

The country needs foreign-made vaccines because local development is only in its early stages.

Under the current plan, inoculations will start with 10,000 front-line medical workers. Then about 3 million other medical workers will be added ahead of high-risk groups such as the elderly, those with underlying health conditions and caregivers. The rest of the population is expected to get access around May or later, though officials refuse to give an exact timeline.

Japan is under a partial state of emergency and struggling with an upsurge of infections. There have been about 351,000 cases, with 4,800 deaths, according to the health ministry.

While vaccines are considered key to achieving the games, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said they won’t be required.

“We will prepare for a safe and secure Olympics without making vaccination a precondition,” Suga said Thursday, responding to a call by opposition lawmakers for a further postponement or cancellation of the games to concentrate on virus measures.

Uncertainty over vaccine safety and efficacy make it difficult to predict when Japan can obtain wide enough immunity to the coronavirus to control the pandemic.

“It is inappropriate to push vaccinations to hold the Olympics,” said Dr. Tetsuo Nakayama, a professor at Kitasato Institute for Life Sciences. “Vaccines should be used to protect the people’s health, not to achieve the Olympics.”

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