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.
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.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, in a speech this week, said vaccines are “the clincher” in the fight against the pandemic and vowed to start vaccinations as soon as late February, when health ministry approval of the Pfizer vaccine, the first applicant, is expected.
Suga pledged to provide “accurate information based on scientific findings, including side effects and efficacy,” an attempt to address the worries of vaccine skeptics.
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.
Many people are skeptical of the vaccination effort, partly because side effects of vaccines have often been played up here. A recent survey on TBS television found only 48% of respondents said they wanted a Covid-19 vaccination. In a Lancet study of 149 countries published in September, Japan ranked among the lowest in vaccine confidence, with less than 25% of people agreeing on vaccine safety, importance and effectiveness.
While vaccines are considered key to achieving the games, Prime Minister 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.