Japan has delivered its first Covid-19 vaccine dose even as a prefectural governor became the first senior politician to call for the cancellation of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
The first recipient of the vaccine in Japan — more than two months after inoculations began in the US and UK — was Kazuhiro Araki, head of the Tokyo Medical Center. He received the jab made by BioNTech and Pfizer on television along with a group of 12 doctors and nurses.
The belated start to vaccinations in Japan illustrated how many countries in east Asia and the Pacific, having contained Covid-19 relatively well, have chosen a slow rollout for their immunisation campaigns.
It means that many people in Japan will still not have been immunised by the Tokyo Olympics in July, making it harder to hold the event with spectators.
Taro Kono, minister in charge of the vaccine rollout, said a group of 40,000 medical personnel will receive the first round of injections, followed by approximately 3.7m doctors, nurses, pharmacists, ambulance drivers and other health workers.
They will be followed by senior citizens starting from April. If vaccine supplies allow, Japan hopes to complete the immunisation of the elderly in two months and three weeks.
However, Japan’s insistence on local clinical trials means that it has only approved the BioNTech/Pfizer jab and is dependent on supplies from the US company’s plant in Belgium — supplies that the EU is desperate to secure for itself.
“I’ve been speaking with the EU ambassador in Tokyo,” said Kono. “We are fairly confident that the EU will give us the OK for the Pfizer vaccine. But as the volume increases later on we hope the EU will give the OK for all of it.”
As the vaccination campaign began on Wednesday, Tatsuya Maruyama, the governor of Shimane prefecture, said he did not want to host the torch relay and called for the games to be scrapped.
“If the current situation does not improve then the Tokyo Olympics should not go ahead,” said Maruyama. He said contact tracing was inadequate and holding the games risked spreading Covid-19 to prefectures such as Shimane, a sparsely populated region of western Japan.
“Tokyo hasn’t been able to control the spread of Covid-19,” he said. “It’s hard to see how we can co-operate with the Olympics or with the torch relay that is supposed to pass through Shimane in May.”
Tokyo has been recording 300-400 new cases of Covid-19 in recent days, down from more than 2,000 a day in early January. Maruyama signalled that he was unhappy with support for businesses in Shimane, which unlike Tokyo is not in a state of emergency.
Tokyo 2020 — currently leaderless after its president Yoshiro Mori resigned in a sexism row — is struggling to keep the Olympics on track amid growing public scepticism and calls for cancellation.
Following a meeting of the selection panel on Wednesday, Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto emerged as the most likely candidate for the job, which would put the games under direct political control. Hashimoto competed in speed skating and track cycling at seven different games.
If other prefectures follow Shimane, particularly those due to host Olympic events or camps for national athletes, it will pile further pressure on Yoshihide Suga. The prime minister has vowed to press ahead with the Olympics as a symbol of humanity’s ability to overcome Covid-19.