Japan’s vaccine program chief denies reports of May rollout

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The chief of Japan’s COVID-19 vaccination program on Wednesday denied media reports that vaccinations for the general public may start in May, as the country battles a third wave that has brought record numbers of infections and serious cases. Media, including public broadcaster NHK, cited an anonymous source close to the government as saying vaccinations could reach the public as soon as May. “Oh no, NHK, please don’t go around making vaccination rollout schedules like that. It’s bogus,” administrative reform minister Taro Kono, who was selected to spearhead the vaccine rollout this week, said on Twitter.

The daily Yomiuri said the government was aiming to inoculate most of the population by July, ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics scheduled to start on July 23. The government has said it would prioritize medical workers, the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions in its vaccine program expected to start by the end of February but has not provided a timeline beyond that.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a daily news briefing the “timeline for vaccination for the broader population would be decided after the vaccine is approved”. The timing of the campaign is of particular interest given that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said vaccines are key to a safe Olympics.

Japan has arranged to buy 540 million doses from multiple Western developers including Pfizer Inc, whose vaccine is expected to be the first to win regulatory approval. Japan has concluded a contract to buy 144 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine in 2021, the health ministry said on Wednesday, pending domestic approval. That is a 24 million dose increase on an earlier agreement.

Japan has had 345,060 coronavirus cases and 4,749 deaths, NHK reported. While its death toll pales in comparison with those in many countries, daily deaths topped 100 for the first time on Tuesday, while the number of people in serious condition reached an all-time high of 1,001, according to Kyodo news.

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