By Gearoid Reidy June 1, 2021, 4:24 PM GMT+8

  •  Pace of vaccinations has increased fourfold in two weeks
  •  Japan is doing ‘exceptionally well,’ says one critic

After some false starts, Japan’s much-delayed vaccine rollout is quietly picking up steam.

The seven-day average of doses has quadrupled in just two weeks, with about a quarter of the 13.2 million shots given coming from the past week alone. A flurry of initiatives are being implemented or floated to further ramp up the drive — among them an expansion of those qualified to administer the shots as well as mass vaccination at workplaces and in “nighttime entertainment” districts.

Japan has faced criticism for the pace of its inoculation drive, which on paper began in February but struggled to get off the ground until last month. Facing initial uncertainties over supplies, shortages of medical personnel, and burdened by a decentralized medical system, it seemed as if the campaign would take years. Japan’s strict approval process that required local clinical trials for foreign vaccines also added to the delay in the rollout.

Although the percentage of Japan’s total population that has received at least one dose of vaccine — 7.8% — still lags other developed countries, some critics of the nation’s inoculation effort say things are going better than they might have thought.

“For the vaccination program per se, I think Japan is doing exceptionally well, unlike the past,” said Kentaro Iwata, a Japanese infectious disease expert who has been an outspoken critic of many policy decisions during the pandemic. He praised the rollout despite considering Japan to be a “developing nation” when it comes to vaccines.

Japan is now administering between 400,000 and 500,000 doses a day, a similar pace to the European Union earlier this year. The country is also dosing a larger percentage of its population each day than the global-leading U.S., where uptake is slowing after over half the population received at least one dose.

A resurgence in virus cases in April added further pressure on the government to accelerate its vaccine push. A third state of emergency was declared for Tokyo and other major cities, which was extended twice to end on June 20. Daily new infections have gradually been falling since mid-May.

The success of the vaccine program is crucial to Suga’s fate. He took over as premier in September, when Japan had largely dodged the pandemic. But as the country battled more deadly third and fourth waves, Suga made the vaccine drive central to his survival, declaring a goal of a system that can deliver a million shots every day — ambitious for a rollout that was then administering about 100,000 doses daily.

Japan has so far targeted medical workers and the elderly, with more than 4.5 million of each receiving at least one dose — that’s nearly 14% of the 35 million people 65 or older. With the oldest population in the world, that group makes up a larger section of the populace than in most other countries. Almost 96% of Covid-related deaths in Japan have occurred in the over-60s. The country has seen nearly 13,000 deaths since the pandemic began.

While Japan has avoided linking vaccination rates to the Olympics, they could provide extra impetus to ensure the unpopular Games can go ahead. Suga aims to have administered both doses to those 65 and over by the end of July, with the Games set to open on July 23. While that goal is still some way off, some see it as achievable as further large-scale centers come online.

“With sufficient vaccine supplies now available, the next crucial challenge is vaccine delivery,” wrote SMBC Nikko Securities Inc. economists Naoto Sekiguchi and Junichi Makino. They estimate that vaccination of the elderly will be complete by mid-July in their base case, or by August in their conservative outlook. “It’s possible the end-July target may be missed, but likely not by much.”

The two large-scale centers run by the country’s Self-Defense Forces administered a combined 66,000 doses in their first week of operation, Kyodo reported. Using Moderna Inc.’s vaccine, the centers help take some of the slack off local authorities.

Pharmacists and retired nurses are now being drafted to assist with administration. Holding mass vaccinations at workplaces is the next idea likely to be tried, including workers under 65, and could start as early as June 21, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said Tuesday.

Officials are floating a plan to hold mass vaccinations in the “nighttime entertainment” districts — home to host and hostess bars as well as the sex trade — which have been cited as a persistent source of outbreaks and are believed to have been the main contributor to a surge last summer, FNN reported.

Private industry is also contributing to the drive. Toyota Motor Corp. is using its just-in-time production system to speed up vaccinations in Toyota city, where the automaker is based. Shared workspace provider TKP Corp. offered to lend its offices as vaccination sites for free, Kyodo reported. And Rakuten Inc. billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani is offering the stadium of his Vissel Kobe football team as a mass-vaccination center from Monday. The club also drafted its star player, former Barcelona ace Andres Iniesta, in a video encouraging people to get vaccinated.

Major hurdles remain in the way of the Japanese rollout, like the population’s history of vaccine hesitancy and the lack of clarity around which age groups will be inoculated when, with a decentralized system meaning it’s up to local authorities to decide how and when to handle the next stage of the campaign.

Health Minister Norihisa Tamura told NHK on Sunday that he wanted local authorities to start giving vaccines to under-65s at the same time as those with underlying conditions to avoid any further holdup.