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Slow Vaccination Rates In Japan Raise Concerns About The Tokyo Olympics

Slow Vaccination Rates In Japan Raise Concerns About The Tokyo Olympics

It's possible that it's too little too late.

That is the realization sinking in as Japan scrambles to catch up on a frustratingly slow vaccination drive less than two months before the start of the Summer Olympics, which have been delayed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Dr. Naoto Ueyama, head of the Japan Doctors Union, the Olympics risk becoming an incubator for “a Tokyo variant,” as 15,000 foreign athletes and tens of thousands of officials, sponsors, and journalists from about 200 countries descend on — and potentially mix with — a largely unvaccinated Japanese population.

Experts have warned that there is little slack in the system, with infections currently at high levels in Tokyo and other densely populated areas and hospitals already under strain treating serious cases despite the state of emergency.

Even if the country achieves its goal of fully vaccinating all 36 million elderly people by the end of July — already a week into the Games — roughly 70% of the population will be unvaccinated, and many have dismissed the target as overly optimistic in any case.

To meet it, Japan has pledged to begin administering 1 million doses per day, up from 500,000 currently, which is a significant improvement after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called on military doctors and nurses and began making legal exceptions to recruit additional vaccinators.

Vaccinations at the current rate will not help prevent infections during the Olympics,” said Tokyo Medical Association Chairman Haruo Ozaki, adding that the Olympics could spark a global spread of different virus variants.

More than 80% of athletes and staff staying in the Olympic Village on Tokyo Bay will be vaccinated, according to the International Olympic Committee, and they are expected to remain largely in a bubble at the village and venues. Japan began vaccinating athletes who will compete in the Games on Tuesday, according to the Japanese Olympic Committee.

However, vaccination rates for those who will work or attend the Games from abroad, including hard-hit regions, are unknown, and experts warn that even strict rules will not prevent all mingling, particularly among non-athletes.

Prominent medical journals have questioned the wisdom of proceeding with the Tokyo Games, and the country's second-largest newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, has called for them to be canceled, reflecting widespread public opposition to holding the Olympics now in Japan.

However, the government has stated that it is determined to proceed, despite the fact that the viability of Suga's leadership, as well as geopolitical competition with rival Beijing, the next Olympic host, and the health of millions, are at stake.

“By using a new weapon called vaccines and taking firm preventive measures, it is completely possible” to hold the Olympics safely, Suga said in a parliamentary session Tuesday.

Officials are now desperately trying to think of ways to increase the shots at a time when medical workers are already overburdened treating COVID-19 patients, and many say they have no extra resources to help with the Olympics, if, for example, the hot Japanese summer causes widespread cases of heat stroke.

Dr. Shigeru Omi, former World Health Organization regional director and head of a government taskforce, believes it is critical to begin immunizing younger people as soon as possible because they are seen as more likely to spread the virus.

Only 2.7% of Japan's population has been fully vaccinated more than three months into the country's vaccination campaign, which began with health care workers in mid-February, months behind many other countries because Japan required additional clinical testing here, a step many experts say was medically meaningless.

Inoculations for the elderly, who are more likely to suffer serious complications if infected, began in mid-April but were slowed by initial supply shortages, time-consuming reservation procedures, and a shortage of medical workers to administer shots.

However, there are signs of improvement: vaccine supplies have increased, and, contrary to earlier predictions of a hesitant response to vaccines in general, senior citizens fearful of the virus are flocking to inoculation sites.

Since May 24, Japan has deployed 280 military doctors and nurses in Tokyo and Osaka, and more than 33,000 vaccination sites are now operational across the country, according to Taro Kono, Japan's minister in charge of vaccinations.

Vaccinations for its 61,000 elderly residents began on May 10 in Sumida, a district in downtown Tokyo where boxing events will be held, and within two weeks, 31% of them had received their first shots, compared to the national average of 3.7%. Sumida is now planning to begin inoculating younger people later this month, well ahead of schedule.

According to Sumida district spokesperson Yosuke Yatabe, close coordination among primary care doctors, hospitals, and residents, as well as flexibility, has contributed to smooth progress.

“It’s almost like a factory line,” Yatabe explained.

Ryuichiro Suzuki, a 21-year-old Tokyo university student, expressed dissatisfaction with Japan's sluggish vaccination campaign.

“I saw that some of my friends overseas have been vaccinated, but my turn won’t come until later this summer,” he explained, adding that “the risk-averse government took extra precaution even though our primary goal was to get back to normal as soon as possible.”

Kono, the vaccine minister, stated that more large-scale immunization centers are being established, including on hundreds of college campuses and offices, in order to begin vaccinating children on June 21.

Beyond the Olympics, and despite the fact that Japan has seen fewer cases and deaths than the United States and other advanced nations, the country's slow pace of vaccinations, as well as its prolonged, often toothless state of emergency, could also delay its economic recovery for months, according to Masaya Sasaki, senior economist at the Nomura Research Institute.

Moreover, despite repeated official government assurances that the Games will be safe, there are concerns in the region about what might happen if vaccinations are not administered.

“The Olympics, which are billed as recovery games, have the potential to spark a new disaster,” said Ueyama of the Japan Doctors Union.

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