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Japan’s COVID vaccination drive is finally revving up. But is it too late for the Olympics?

Man receiving COVID-19 shot
An employee of the beverage maker Suntory receives a COVID-19 shot Monday at his workplace in Tokyo.
(Eugene Hoshiko / Associated Press)

After months of frustration and delay, Japan has hit the promising benchmark of 1 million COVID-19 vaccinations a day. But with the Tokyo Olympics set to start in less than a month, and only a small portion of the country inoculated, a question lingers: Is it enough?

The vaccination pace is quickening even as the young remain hesitant amid an anti-vaccination misinformation campaign. Officials have slowed vaccination appointments as demand outpaces supply.

Add in continued political and bureaucratic bungling and the arrival of more contagious coronavirus variants, and there are worries that the government’s effort to ramp up vaccinations before the Olympics will fall short.

Thousands of private companies and some universities have joined the vaccination drive, complementing the government’s effort to prioritize the full vaccination of older people by the end of July.

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The acceleration is causing worries about a shortage, and further progress is now uncertain. Taro Kono, the minister in charge of inoculations, abruptly announced a temporary suspension of many new vaccination appointments, saying that distribution could not keep pace with demand.

“It’s a tightrope situation,” Kono said Wednesday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the State Department are warning Americans against all travel to Japan because of a surge in coronavirus cases in the country as it prepares to host the Olympics in just two months.

Much will depend on whether the nation’s young embrace the vaccination program.

Younger people are still largely unvaccinated, and their movements during summer vacations and the Olympics could trigger another surge in infections, propelled by the more contagious Delta variant, which is expected to be dominant by then, experts say.

A resurgence of cases among the young has already begun in Tokyo, which reported 619 new cases Wednesday, up from the last seven-day average of 405.

The inoculation drive could lose steam if younger people, many of whom believe they are less likely to develop serious symptoms, don’t get inoculated. Skeptics are sometimes swayed by rumors and online misinformation about vaccines.

With 3% of its population vaccinated, and Tokyo and other prefectures under extended states of emergency, there’s no justification for Japan hosting the Olympics.

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“How we might encourage younger generations to get vaccinated is a big issue,” Kono said. Officials plan to reach out to them on social media to provide accurate information.

Despite worries that things will slow again, observers acknowledge an unexpected turnaround in the vaccine campaign.

As recently as early May, only a quarter of a million shots were being given daily, with only 2% to 3% of the population fully vaccinated. The pace has since picked up to hit 1 million a day, a target set by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga that was once widely considered overly ambitious.

As of Tuesday, about 8.2% of Japan’s population was fully vaccinated, which remains low compared with 46.3% in Britain and 44.9% in the U.S., according to Our World in Data. The global average is 10%.

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An overwhelming majority of people in Japan don’t want next month’s Olympics to happen over concerns about COVID-19.

A workplace vaccination program kicked off Monday in Japan. The government has received applications from nearly 4,000 sites run by companies and universities, covering more than 15 million employees, their families and students, the prime minister’s office said.

Suga now has a new target of fully vaccinating everyone who wants to be by October or November.

Japan’s vaccination rollout started with medical workers in mid-February. Inoculations for older people began in mid-April but were slowed by supply and distribution uncertainties, bungled appointment procedures and a lack of healthcare workers to give shots.

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Japan, which has no home-developed vaccines ready for use, relies on imports. Supply has increased from May onward.

Since May 24, Japan has opened military-run vaccination sites in Tokyo and Osaka, while local municipalities have established tens of thousands of other centers nationwide.

Japanese government and Olympic officials, despite their early pledge to hold a “safe and secure” Summer Games without vaccines, accepted the International Olympic Committee’s donation of Pfizer vaccine doses for participants, while they scramble to accelerate the general vaccination program.

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Major retailers, automakers and trading companies have started providing government-distributed COVID-19 shots for free to employees and families.

To lure younger people, tech giant SoftBank Group is offering discount tickets to SoftBank Hawks professional baseball games for those who complete vaccinations. The company opened its first inoculation site Monday in Tokyo and aims to set up more by the end of July for as many as 250,000 employees, their families and neighbors.

About 10,000 of 80,000 unpaid volunteers for the Tokyo Olympics have told organizers they will not participate when the Games open July 23.

Japan historically has had a mistrust of vaccines, partly because rare side effects have often been played up by the media. A court ruling that held the government responsible for side effects linked to several vaccines led to the scrapping of mandatory inoculations in the 1990s.

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Vaccination officials have also faced protests from skeptical parents opposed to COVID-19 shots for children aged 12 to 15, who have recently been added as eligible recipients.

Earlier this month, a Kyoto town office was flooded with calls accusing officials of attempted murder by inoculating children.

Even if vaccinations climb significantly in coming months, waves of infections could still occur as long as the young are largely unvaccinated, said Dr. Shigeru Omi, a top government COVID-19 advisor.

“Though vaccines are very effective, they are not 100%, and I believe it will take some time before we can get the infections under control,” Omi said. “We have to wait a while before dropping our guard.”


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