JAPAN: European Union curbs on exports of novel coronavirus vaccines could delay Japan's inoculation drive, the minister in charge of the campaign said on Tuesday (Feb 2), while the government is expected to extend a state of emergency in a bid to rein in the epidemic.
Japan is set to begin its vaccination campaign this month, later than most major economies, and any delay could sow doubts about a government aim to secure enough doses for everyone before the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
"The EU has enacted this export transparency mechanism, and it is affecting Japan's supply schedule," Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the vaccine effort, told reporters.
Kono did not elaborate on the length of any possible delay.
The EU has not imposed any curbs on vaccine exports yet but it reserves the right to do so if overseas shipments undermine the bloc's own supplies.
Kono later told a briefing that negotiations with the EU were going on and there was no change to the plan to start inoculations in the latter half of February.
Japan is relying on foreign vaccine manufacturers and Kono warned last week that growing nationalism over the shots could lead to retaliation and disruptions to global supplies.
Japan has secured rights to more than 500 million vaccine doses from several Western developers, more than enough for its 126 million population.
But the dependence on overseas makers and a requirement that the vaccines go through domestic trials have delayed its campaign.
State broadcaster NHK reported on Tuesday that approval for the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine could come on Feb 12. The first doses may arrive on Feb 14 from a Pfizer factory in Belgium, the Fuji News Network reported.
Japan has reported a total of 391,618 coronavirus infections, including 5,832 deaths, and persistent flare-ups in infections have undermined public support for the delayed 2020 Summer Olympics, scheduled for July to August.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his government are determined to host the Games.
Infections have trended down in recent days but the government has to be cautious, a top official said.
"We'll respond with a sense of urgency based on the medical situation and virus spread," Katsunobu Kato, chief cabinet secretary, told reporters.
"The number of new coronavirus cases is falling, but caution is still needed," Kato said, adding that hospitals remained full and the death rate had not fallen.
Suga is due to make a decision on any emergency extension after a meeting of an expert panel later in the day.
The government last month imposed a one-month state of emergency for 11 areas, including Tokyo and neighbouring prefectures as well as the western city of Osaka, to combat the country's third and most lethal coronavirus wave.
Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told a meeting that the government was seeking to extend the emergency in 10 of the 11 prefectures, until Mar 7, because while the number of cases was falling, the medical system remained under pressure.
Until now, the emergency has lacked teeth, with the government limited to requesting compliance, though that may change this week with the passage of a revision to the coronavirus special measures law that will allow authorities to levy fines on people who break the law.
Support for Suga's government has been battered by disapproval of his handling of the pandemic, a situation not helped when several ruling coalition lawmakers admitted to flouting rules by visiting hostess clubs and bars late at night.
One resigned his seat on Monday and three others left Suga's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).