Japan, in the run-up to the Olympics, produces half a billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan is taking an aggressive step to seize enough coronavirus vaccine to inoculate its population four times, a pressure that the government hopes to instill confidence that it can host a delayed Olympic Games next year.

FILE PHOTO: People in traditional costume kimonos, wearing protective masks as they make their way to a shopping mall in hot weather, amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Tokyo, Japan August 18, 2020. REUTERS / Kim Kyung -Hoon

Like other rich countries, Japan signs multiple deals because some of the vaccines may fail in clinical trials or require more than one dose.

But Japan has something else to ride on a successful mass release of a fax machine: outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal to bring thousands of athletes and fans to Tokyo for the Games, postponed this year due to the pandemic.

On the day he announced his resignation as prime minister, Abe tried to reassure domestic and foreign audiences that the coronavirus was under control. He promised that by mid-2021 there would be enough vaccine for Japan and said the nation would relax its September 1 travel ban.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga had previously said that Japan was working with Olympic organizers on how to proceed with the Games, and the effort linked to the need to secure a fax machine.

The various companies “will probably be able to produce a vaccine between the end of this year and next March,” Suga told Reuters in an interview this week. “There are a lot of considerations, but we want to keep the Olympics at all costs.”

Japan is on track to have 521 million doses of five different vaccines by 2021, compared to a population of 126 million. Recent deals include worldwide deals with drug makers like Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) and AstraZeneca PLC (AZN.L), as well as local deals with Shionogi & Co.4507.T). “You have to bet evenly to avoid getting anything,” said Tomoya Saito, director of the Japanese National Institute of Public Health.


Some critics argue that Japan’s rush to secure supplies is largely driven by a political desire to show the world that it is fully committed to the Games. “The plan is, hope for a miracle and then capitalize on that miracle,” said Michael Cucek, a professor of political science at Temple University Japan. “But the time frame for that is getting narrower.” Ministry of Health and cabinet officials did not respond to questions about whether Japanese drive to secure coronavirus vaccines was linked to the Olympics.

Abe has promised to increase the testing capacity to 200,000 per day along with securing fax supplies. He also said that Japan’s travel ban, one of the strictest in the world, would be relaxed on September 1.

From that date, non-Japanese citizens and visa holders can leave and re-enter the country, with prior authorization. They must also test for a negative result of coronavirus within 72 hours of returning to Japan, cabinet officials said at a briefing on Friday. Japanese officials have discussed setting up a “simplified” Games, originally expected to attract 600,000 visitors. But the event would still involve about 11,000 athletes.

To host the Olympics requires “masses of an effective vaccine,” said Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute of Population Health at King’s College, London. Organizing an Olympics in a pandemic will be a major logistical challenge, as athletes will have to train and travel to events and many thousands of fans will have to be accommodated at a time when many countries may still be in a slump. Japan still has a travel ban in place that covers more than 140 countries.

Even with a viable vaccine, the added challenge of immunizing athletes and visitors before or after landing in Japan will be enormous.

A “very, very essential factor” will be when an effective vaccine is ready and how it will be distributed, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told Reuters.

“We will do our best to prevent coronavirus infections here in Japan and also welcome the athletes from all over the world.”

Report by Rocky Swift; Edited by David Dolan, William Mallard and Nick Macfie

Our standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.