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Japan's Vaccine Rollout Lags Other Developed Economies

NOEL KING, HOST:

Japan just started vaccinating senior citizens this week. Older people make up about 30% of that country's population. For some reason, Japan's vaccine rollout is going much more slowly than in other developed countries. NPR's Anthony Kuhn asked why.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Tokyo's Minato Ward is home to affluent neighborhoods, embassies, big corporate headquarters and about 250,000 residents. Shigenori Doi runs the ward's vaccination program. He says he's hopeful Pfizer vaccines will start arriving early next month.

SHIGENORI DOI: (Through interpreter) The first shipment is going to be just one box, which is an extremely small amount. It will be for less than 500 people, as each person requires two shots.

KUHN: As this month began, only one-tenth of 1% of Japan's population had been fully vaccinated. Less than 1% have received any dose. Almost all of them are medical workers. Japan will have to pick up the pace if it's to meet its deadline for finishing vaccinations at the end of February next year. Medical experts, meanwhile, are warning of a fourth wave of COVID infections. In parliament last week, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga deflected lawmakers' suggestions that the government was being lax in fighting the virus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOI: (Non-English language spoken).

KUHN: "At this point," he said, "infections have not developed into a nationwide wave yet." Dr. Yuho Horikoshi is an immunization and infectious disease expert with the World Health Organization. He says Japan enjoys relatively high rates of acceptance for common vaccines like flu shots.

YUHO HORIKOSHI: (Through interpreter) Flu vaccines have been in use for almost half a century. So people don't doubt them. But it's difficult for them to accept something new. Basically, conservatism is part of our national character.

KUHN: That conservatism is reflected in the slow approval process for new imported vaccines, a process which requires clinical testing in Japan. Horikoshi says that as Japan hasn't produced its own COVID vaccines yet, it has no choice but to import them.

HORIKOSHI: (Through interpreter) Only a limited number of companies are capable of producing COVID vaccines. Japan is late in developing them because they haven't invested in them.

KUHN: Horikoshi says it's hard to pull off a vaccination program as big as that for COVID without a hitch. But he faults Japan's government for failing to give the public the information it needs to weigh the benefits and risks of vaccination.

HORIKOSHI: (Through interpreter) Vaccination is a little difficult for people to understand because it's different from other medicines, which cure diseases people already have. Usually, you need a government department which specializes in risk communication. But Japan doesn't have such a system.

KUHN: Trust has also been damaged by several vaccine scares. In the 1990s, for example, a Japanese-made measles, mumps and rubella vaccine was linked to side effects and several deaths. Horikoshi says a class action lawsuit followed.

HORIKOSHI: (Through interpreter) The government lost the lawsuit. That caused it to turn its back on vaccinations.

KUHN: Stung by the defeat, the government stopped requiring childhood immunizations and instead just recommended them. Today, the slow COVID vaccine rollout is increasing public skepticism in Japan about the Olympics, now less than four months away. Olympic athletes will be urged but not required to get vaccinated. One recent study shows that even if vaccinations speed up, they may not be able to prevent a fourth or even fifth wave of infections from sweeping Japan even as the games are in progress.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF PINO PALLADINO AND BLAKE MILLS' "DJURKEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.

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