Staff at the National Tokyo Medical Center began receiving shots on Wednesday. About 800 people there will be part of the initial group and will receive a second dose in three weeks’ time.
Center Director Araki Kazuhiro was the first in line. “I think the vaccine is our trump card against the coronavirus pandemic,” he said. “Medical workers can get a little sense of security by taking it.”
For four weeks after the second shots are given, the health ministry will be surveying 50 percent of those involved to see whether they develop any side effects, such as a high temperature.
The ministry is preparing to begin vaccinating the roughly 3.7 million remaining healthcare workers in mid-March. It also plans to start vaccinating about 36 million people aged 65 or older some time in April.
Approximately 8.2 million people with underlying health conditions will be next in line, along with about two million individuals working at nursing care facilities.
But whether the vaccination program can proceed as planned remains uncertain. Japan has produced no vaccines of its own and is depending on timely shipments from the European Union.
Kono Taro, the minister in charge of the vaccination program, said on Tuesday: “I feel sorry that the government has yet to announce the precise starting date for the elderly. We will make every effort to provide information as soon as possible.”
There is also a supply issue involving a crucial piece of medical equipment. Each vial of the Pfizer vaccine was expected to contain enough for six doses. But the type of syringes used in Japan can draw out only five, which means fewer people in the country will get the shot.
To address the issue, the central government last month asked a manufacturing firm to boost production of special syringes. They say they have secured enough for phase one of the vaccine rollout.
Japan's rollout is lagging other developed countries.
A website run by researchers at the University of Oxford shows that vaccination programs against COVID-19 have started in at least 70 countries and territories.
As of 01:00 UTC on Wednesday, the United States had administered the highest number of doses, at 52.88 million. Next was China, with 40.52 million doses, then the United Kingdom with 15.84 million, followed by India with 8.72 million doses, and Israel with 6.6 million.
But Okabe Nobuhiko, a member of the government's expert panel, says it’s important to avoid being hasty, as that could lead to unexpected problems or accidents.
“Speed and safety are of equal importance,” says Okabe. “We must try to have as many people as possible safely inoculated.”
After more than a year of living with the pandemic, expectations are running high. An NHK opinion poll earlier this month found that nearly 80 percent of respondents are expecting vaccines to help contain the coronavirus.