Japan may have to throw away some 24 million doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine because of a shortage in syringes.
The Japanese government last month secured 144 million doses, enough for over half the country’s 126 million population. (The vaccine requires two shots.) Each vial of the Pfizer vaccine contains six shots, but the lack of a special syringe means the last of the shots will go to waste.
Katsunobu Kato, a top government spokesman, said Monday that the sixth dose will generally “be discarded” if it cannot be extracted.
A health ministry official told the Japan Times, “When the contract was made, we were not absolutely sure that one bottle could be used for six shots. We can’t deny we were slow to confirm that.”
A global shortage of the so-called low-dead space syringes has affected vaccination programs in the United States and Europe. In Japan, it is threatening to slow what is already a late rollout.
Japan is the last of the Group of 7 wealthy nations to begin inoculations, having not approved a single vaccine candidate. The Pfizer vaccine in question is expected to gain approval on Feb. 15 and the Moderna vaccine will likely be approved by May. Both vaccines have been widely administered elsewhere since December.
If all goes according to plan, healthcare workers will receive vaccinations from Feb. 17. The Japanese government aims to secure enough vaccines for all residents by the end of June, just a few weeks before the Olympics are set to take place on July 23.
But some worry that the nation’s slow response and lacking resources will delay the rollout even longer. Separately, some local governments, such as Osaka Prefecture, have said they are planning to administer jabs by the end of September.
“If you compare Japan’s vaccine development to other countries, we’re really far behind,” said Hiro Ogawa, a 55-year-old salesman.
“People abroad are already receiving vaccines. We don’t even have one [approved] yet,” he told VICE World News.
Japan’s slow vaccine rollout is partially due to its policy requiring all vaccines made abroad be tested on local patients. Japanese officials have said it’s a safety concern; doses must generate a similar level of antibodies when tested on locals.
Ken Ishii, a professor of vaccine science at the University of Tokyo, said Japanese regulators were being “cautious rather than late” because they wanted to avoid an anti-vaccine backlash, the Financial Times reported. This precautionary measure has prevented many COVID vaccines, such as the BioNTech and Pfizer candidates, from being approved.
Japan’s current vaccine challenges are far cry from its past role as a global leader in this field.
Japan was one of the first countries to develop an MMR vaccine. But vaccine development was stalled after the government lost multiple lawsuits in the 1990s over the vaccine’s permanent side effects.
This mishap has also seeded public distrust in vaccines. Japan is among countries with the lowest confidence in vaccination, according to a study published by the medical journal Lancet last year.
Ogawa, the worker, said he hopes vaccines will be made available to the general public sooner, but he himself is wary of getting inoculated.
“We don’t know if it’s perfect yet. Some of the side effects noted in other people make me fearful. I want to see how other people react to it first,” he said.