Japan is struggling to contain the surge of Covid-19 as the fourth wave of coronavirus pandemic worsens in the Asian country ahead of one of the biggest sporting events of the year — the Summer Olympics.
Japan has just begun to vaccinate its citizens — starting with older people aged 65 or above — at a much slower pace than other developed countries.
The country has so far administered fewer than 2 million doses to its population of about 126 million.
It means that only 0.9 per cent of the people in Japan have received their first shot, far lower than countries like South Korea and the United Kingdom, where the percentage is 2.5 and 48 respectively.
So, now the question is — whether Japan will be ready for Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, with less than 100 days left to go?
After facing criticism for the slow vaccine rollout, Prime minister Yoshihide Suga’s government has expanded quasi-emergency measures to 10 regions in Japan as more contagious SARS-CoV-2 variants are spreading from the city of Osaka, casting doubts on whether the Olympics can be held in Tokyo.
The quasi-state of emergency allows local governments to order public places like restaurants and bars to shorten their hours and fine those who won’t follow the restrictions.
Throughout the pandemic, a full state of emergency has been declared twice in Japan.
However, currently, anxieties are also rising over Japan’s sluggish vaccination programme, which is far behind countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, India, Singapore, South Korea and Indonesia.
Even according to a public opinion poll, 70 per cent of Japanese feel that the vaccine rollout has been too slow.
The Minister in charge of Administrative Reform, Taro Kono, said on 12 March that 100 million doses should be stockpiled by June to cover Japan’s elderly population (about 30 million people), those with pre-existing health issues and healthcare workers.
If this happens, then almost half the population would be vaccinated when the Olympics start on 23 July.
But still, there is a concern that healthcare workers may not be able to keep up with the vaccination schedule.
The main reason behind the slow rollout stems from the initial decision by the Japanese government to go through a delayed approval for the jab developed by American pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.
Even though the World Health Organization (WHO) approved the vaccine on 31 December, the Japanese Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency (PMDA) took another six weeks to conclude its own trials of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before approving it.
However, as per recent reports, Pfizer has agreed to supply extra vaccine doses to Japan.
The exact number of extra doses has not yet been revealed, but Kono said that Japan would secure enough vaccines by the end of September to inoculate people over 16.
The country has also ordered 50 million doses of Moderna vaccine and 120 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine with hopes that both will be approved for distribution and domestic production by May.
Local trials for the Novavax vaccine have also started and the authorities hope that domestic production will begin by the end of 2021.
However, in terms of hosting a safe international sporting in July, Tokyo's Olympics chief said that there is no plan to cancel the event, reported Reuters.
“We will continue to do what we can to implement a thorough safety regimen that will make people feel complete safety," said Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto.
According to reports, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee will visit Japan in May.
He will also attend a torch relay ceremony which will take place on 17 May in the western city of Hiroshima.
The next day, he is expected to meet Prime Minister Suga.
Kyodo News agency reported that Bach is likely to back Japan’s commitment to safely host the Olympic Games, which was postponed last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But according to a senior ruling party official, cancelling the 2021 Olympics remains an option if the Covid-19 situation becomes too dire.
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