TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan launched its COVID-19 inoculation campaign on Wednesday, administering the Pfizer-BionTech vaccine to Tokyo hospital workers as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga tries to beat the odds and host the Olympics this summer.
Workers at the Tokyo Medical Center were among the first of some 40,000 medical professionals selected to receive initial shipments of the vaccine. 3.7 million more medical personnel will follow, then 36 million people aged 65 and over.
“This is the first important step in ending the coronavirus (pandemic),” Deputy Health Minister Hiroshi Yamamoto told reporters at the hospital after the first vaccines were administered.
Suga has said that the vaccine rollout will be critical to holding a successful Olympics, delayed from last year and starting in late July.
The government aims to secure enough vaccines for its entire population of 126 million by mid-2021. A full implementation could take a year, the head of the vaccination program, Taro Kono, said on Tuesday.
Millions of doses of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine are also feared to be wasted due to a shortage of syringes needed to maximize the number of injections in each vial.
The Tokyo Medical Center said it has a sufficient supply for now of the low dead space syringes needed to draw six doses from each vial. He plans to inoculate 60 people a day starting Thursday to minimize the amount of vaccine that could be wasted and to monitor people who receive a dose.
The hospital’s director, Kazuhiro Araki, said he wanted to set an example for others by receiving the first injection.
“I don’t really like getting shot,” Araki told reporters. “I’m glad it doesn’t hurt. I feel relieved.”
Japan has signed contracts to purchase a combined 314 million doses of vaccines from Pfizer Inc and BionTech, AstraZeneca Plc and Moderna Inc, enough for 157 million people.
Japan has so far recorded around 415,000 COVID-19 cases, including 7,013 deaths.
Although daily cases have declined in recent weeks after peaking in early January, Tokyo and nine other prefectures remain in a state of emergency to prevent further spread of the disease.
Japan is the latest member of the Group of Seven industrialized countries to launch a vaccination campaign. The government plans to vaccinate medical workers first, then the elderly, people with health problems, and workers in nursing homes.
Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim and Jane Wardell