Japan’s vaccination rollout faces logistical hurdles that could further delay the slow campaign, experts and officials say, making plans difficult to get large-scale coronavirus vaccinations in time for the Olympics.
Japan is already the last major industrialized country to start mass vaccination. It is likely to be hampered on the ground by a shortage of bins and dry ice, as well as difficulties in recruiting medical staff, more than a dozen people involved in the vaccination campaign told Reuters.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said vaccines were critical to a successful Olympics after last year’s delay. The first recordings for medical staff are scheduled for the end of February, leaving only 145 days until the games begin on July 23.
By then, Japan will have to give about 870,000 injections a day to vaccinate half of its population, with each person requiring two shots.
“The government’s plan puts a huge burden on individual communities as they hand out the vaccines,” said Koji Wada, advisor on the government’s COVID-19 response. “Big metropolitan areas like Tokyo may have the infrastructure to get vaccinations up smoothly, but more rural areas … might have more difficulties.”
In an interview on Wednesday, Yuji Kuroiwa, the governor of Kanagawa, a prefecture near Tokyo, admitted that the massive task of vaccinating the public would fall on individual communities.
“While we are very confident about the vaccine, it is still difficult to predict how widespread and effective vaccinations will be in time for the Olympics,” he said.
Companies that specialize in shipping pharmaceuticals say they may not have enough specialized containers to ship Pfizer Inc’s vaccine, which must be stored at minus 75 degrees Celsius, much colder than traditional freezers.
A government source told Reuters that officials had only started assessing whether there were enough containers or dry ice to pack freezer boxes late last year.
Japanese vaccine czar Taro Kono outlined the extent of the challenge last week. The coordination of the medical staff, the transport, the manufacture of the freezer, the needle disposal and dealing with local governments will be done by different ministries, he said on Twitter.
Medical staff, already exhausted from caring for a third deadly wave of infections, must be mobilized to fire shots.
The vaccine has not yet been approved, although this is widely expected by the middle of next month. Previously, the Ministry of Health conducted a sham vaccination test on Wednesday at a college gym in Kawasaki, 17 miles south of Tokyo.
Japan bought enough Pfizer vaccines to vaccinate 72 million people, more than half of its population. The government buys around 20,000 special coolers and procures huge quantities of dry ice for transport.
Japan produces about 350,000 tons of dry ice a year, but it’s mostly used for food preservation, according to an official from one of the largest manufacturers. The government requires either granular or powdered ice to ship the vaccine, which can keep temperatures colder than the standard dry ice blocks used for food.
“It’s not just about being able to change a part on a machine, the production method (for the ice cream) is different,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “The conversion would take several months.”
Transportation company Nippon Express Co Ltd was involved in talks to distribute the Pfizer vaccine but relied on the drug manufacturer to provide special containers, a spokesman said.
The company is building four specialized warehouses across Japan to store medical products. These won’t be ready until February, however, and aren’t designed to withstand the super cold needed for Pfizer’s vaccine, he said.
Industrial refrigerator maker Nihon Freezer Co is making 2,300 coolers for the government, but without a formal contract until the first vaccines are approved, a company official said.
These can be plugged into any 100V outlet that is standard in Japan, although temporary vaccination centers like schools may need to be rewired.
“We made about half of these and should have the rest ready by June,” the official said of the freezers that are made in Denmark. “It was difficult to find enough components because production suddenly increased.”
Medical device maker PHC Corp, which the government developed for ultra-low temperature freezers, says it operates its main facility around the clock.
After dispensing, the vaccines must be administered by already overworked doctors. A survey by Kyodo News found that about 80% of prefectural governments were concerned about having enough staff to give injections.
Several frontline doctors have said they are short of manpower to deal with the crisis.
Self-defense nurses have already been posted to some pandemic-hit cities and could be called upon again, a defense official said. The SDF has approximately 2,000 doctors and nurses qualified for injections, although not all can be spared, he said.
Japan has also commissioned hundreds of millions of vaccine doses from several foreign manufacturers, but these have not been mobilized for months.
That could create doubts about the Olympics, but it would be worse to rush to the process, said Yoshihito Niki, an infectious disease specialist at Showa University Hospital.
“It is better to be more cautious and cautious about vaccinations than to get the municipalities to push the preparations,” he said.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and published from a syndicated feed.)