After months of frustration and delay, Japan has achieved the remarkable feat of producing one million vaccines per day. But, with the Olympics beginning in less than a month and only a small portion of the country immunized, the question remains: Is it enough?
Even as the young remain hesitant due to an anti-vaccination misinformation campaign, the vaccination rate is increasing, and officials have slowed vaccination reservations as demand outstrips supply.
Add to that the government’s continued political and bureaucratic blunders, as well as the arrival of highly contagious coronavirus variants, and there are concerns that the government’s effort to ramp up vaccinations in time for the Olympics will fall short.
Thousands of private companies and some universities have joined the vaccination campaign, which complements the government’s effort to prioritize full vaccination of the elderly by the end of July.
Concerns about a supply shortage have arisen as a result of the acceleration, and further progress is now uncertain. Taro Kono, the minister in charge of immunizations, abruptly announced on Wednesday a temporary suspension of many new vaccination reservations, claiming that vaccine distribution cannot keep up with demand.
Much will be determined by how enthusiastically the nation’s youth embrace the vaccination program.
Despite the fact that more people are getting vaccinated, and fully immunizing the country’s 36 million senior citizens now appears likely, younger people remain largely unvaccinated, and their movements during summer vacations and the Olympics could spark another outbreak of infections, fueled by the more contagious Delta strain, which is expected to be dominant by then, experts say.
A resurgence of cases among young people has already begun in Tokyo, which reported 619 new cases on Wednesday, an increase from the previous seven-day average of 405.
If younger people, many of whom believe they are less likely to develop serious symptoms, do not get immunized, the inoculation campaign may lose steam. Vaccine rumors and online misinformation can sometimes sway skeptics.
Despite concerns that the vaccine campaign will slow again, observers are witnessing an unexpected turnaround.
Only a quarter million shots were given daily as recently as early May, with only 2-3% of the population fully vaccinated. Since then, the rate has accelerated to 1 million per day, a target set by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga that was widely regarded as overly ambitious at the time.
As of Tuesday, approximately 8.2 percent of the country had been fully vaccinated. While impressive given the slow rollout, it remains low in comparison to the United Kingdom’s 46.3 percent, America’s 44.9 percent, and the global average of 10%, according to Our World in Data.
The workplace immunization program began on Monday. According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the government has received applications from nearly 4,000 companies and universities, covering more than 15 million employees, their families, and students.
Suga’s new goal is to fully vaccinate everyone who requests one by October or November. Officials have not stated when new vaccination reservations will be accepted, but have stated that the program’s overall timeline will not be impacted.
Japan’s vaccination campaign began with medical workers in mid-February, months after many other countries. The additional clinical testing required for foreign-developed vaccines caused the delay.
Inoculations for the elderly began in mid-April, but were hampered by supply and distribution uncertainties, bungled reservation procedures, and a shortage of medical workers to administer shots.
Japan, which still lacks ready-to-use vaccines developed in-house, is reliant on imports. Since May, supply has increased, and despite earlier predictions of vaccine hesitancy in general, senior citizens who are afraid of the virus have rushed to get shots.
Since May 24, Japan has opened military-run vaccination sites in Tokyo and Osaka, while local governments have opened tens of thousands of other centers across the country.
To entice younger people, tech behemoth SoftBank Group Corp. is providing discounted tickets to SoftBank Hawks professional baseball games to those who complete vaccinations. The company opened its first vaccination site in Tokyo on Monday and plans to open more by the end of July for up to 250,000 employees, their families, and neighbors.
Vaccines have long been viewed with suspicion in Japan, in part because rare side effects have frequently been exaggerated by the media. In the 1990s, mandatory immunizations were phased out due to a court ruling that held the government liable for side effects linked to several vaccines.