Japan begins COVID-19 vaccination drive amid Olympic worries

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By Euronews  with AP
Tokyo Medical Center director Kazuhiro Araki, left, receives a dose of COVID-19 vaccine in Tokyo Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.
Tokyo Medical Center director Kazuhiro Araki, left, receives a dose of COVID-19 vaccine in Tokyo Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.   -  Copyright  Behrouz Mehri/Pool Photo via AP

Japan began rolling out coronavirus vaccines on Wednesday to healthcare workers but many are wondering if the campaign will move fast enough before the Summer Olympics planned for July.

The country is rolling out vaccines months after other major economies but despite rising infections, Japan has avoided the infections and death rates of western countries.

There are concerns that vaccine shortages and hesitancy over side effects in Japan could hinder efforts to host the Olympics later in the year.

The late rollout will make it impossible to reach so-called "herd immunity" against the virus before the Olympics begin in July, experts say.

The Olympics were already delayed a year and there are billions of dollars at stake if the games are cancelled.

Nonetheless, the population is more hesitant about the prospect of holding the games.

About 80 per cent of those polled in recent media surveys support cancellation or further postponement of the Olympics because of the virus worries.

Dr Kazuhiro Araki, president of Tokyo Medical Centre, was one of the first Japanese to get a jab on Wednesday.

"It didn't hurt at all, and I'm feeling very relieved," he told reporters while he was being monitored for any allergic reaction. "We now have better protection, and I hope we feel more at ease as we provide medical treatment".

About 40,000 doctors and nurses considered vulnerable coronavirus because they treat COVID-19 patients were in the group getting their first dose on Wednesday and scheduled to receive their second dose beginning March 10.

Japan only approved the Pfizer vaccine on Sunday, several weeks behind the rollout of the vaccine in the UK, US and European countries.

Japan fell behind their pace because it asked Pfizer to conduct clinical trials with Japanese people, in addition to trials already conducted in six other nations. Japanese officials said this was necessary to address worries in a country with low vaccine confidence.

"I think it is more important for the Japanese government to show the Japanese people that we have done everything possible to prove the efficacy and safety of the vaccine to encourage the Japanese people to take the vaccine," Japanese vaccine minister Taro Kono said.

"So at the end of the day we might have started slower but we think it will be more effective".

The first batch of the Pfizer vaccine will cover the first group of medical workers. The second batch is set for delivery next week.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said he's determined to achieve a safe and secure Olympics as "proof of human victory against the pandemic".