Israel: 61 percent; UK: 47 percent; Chile: 37 percent; U.S.: 36 percent – of the population vaccinated at least once, as of April 14, against the COVID-19 virus.
Japan: 1 percent.
To say Japan lags behind is an understatement. Other nations are up and running. Japan is barely at the starting line. Why?
Weekly Playboy (May 3) cites various factors –shipment delays, distribution snags, personnel shortages, widespread suspicion of and aversion to the very notion of vaccination, extraordinarily strict vaccine approval standards, and so on. Bad as it looks, the magazine is optimistic. “There is still a chance Japan can recover!” is its exclamatory conclusion.
There is always a chance. Meanwhile, it’s grim. Nationwide vaccination of medical personnel began in February. It was to have been over by mid-April, at which point senior citizens would line up for their jabs.
Having failed to produce a domestic vaccine, Japan contracted with three overseas drug makers for vaccine supply – U.S.-based Pfizer, U.S-based Moderna, and UK-based AstraZeneca. An indication of worse to come was the available stock of vaccine as of March 1 – 1400 boxes representing 1.35 million to 1.6 million jabs. “At this rate,” fumes one doctor to Playboy, “it will take 16 years to get everyone fully vaccinated.”
Pfizer is to supply vaccine for 72 million jabs by year’s end. Delays notwithstanding, the health ministry confirms its plan to have 36 million people jabbed twice by the end of June. Impossible, Playboy quotes an unnamed medical journalist as commenting. The Pfizer vaccine is complicated. It can’t be produced domestically. It’s being shipped from a lab in Belgium. “Not even Pfizer’s Japan office can say when the full dosage will arrive,” the journalist says.
As for the Moderna vaccine, it’s still being tested, approval expected in May. It, too, is unpredictable. Most is expected of the AstraZeneca serum. It can be produced in Japan; of 120 million doses to be provided within the year, 90 million will be made here. It, too, is slated for final approval in May.
It almost goes without saying: much can go wrong. Will the vaccines cause blood clots? Allergic reactions? Will they work against emerging new strains of the virus? Uneasiness on those and other points is why Japan’s approval procedures are so slow, say critics – or so thorough, to give it a positive spin. By way of example, the Pfizer serum was still being tested two months after it had been approved in the U.S.
Japan’s medical infrastructure is world class – but is not oriented toward epidemics. It’s had few to deal with in recent times, due partly to good luck, partly to admirable sanitation. There are many clinics but few equipped for the task at hand. Distribution channels are inadequate. The serum must be frozen and defrosted and injected within a fixed time span after defrosting. It takes a great deal of management. People who abruptly cancel vaccination appointments can throw very delicate arrangements off kilter, resulting sometimes in serum having to be thrown away.
“Drive-through vaccination” is one option for speeding things up, Playboy suggests. It seems to be working well in Texas, and was underway in a hospital parking lot in the Gifu Prefecture town of Kasamatsu.
And might it be possible, Playboy wonders, to get qualified nurses on childbirth or childcare leave back to work for the emergency? They would be a much-needed asset.
Is the magazine’s optimism justified? One reply might be that optimism is always justified – as potentially self-fulfilling prophecy, if nothing else.© Japan Today