Japan expedites booster schedule for all eligible residents

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People wait to receive COVID-19 booster shots in Fukuoka City on Jan. 5.

A third COVID-19 vaccine dose will be offered to most people in Japan one month earlier than planned, following a government announcement that effectively brings forward the rollout for all eligible residents who want to receive a booster shot.

The schedule for some health care workers and elderly people had already been brought forward by one to two months.

Amid a rapid surge in omicron coronavirus cases, the government has decided to expedite the booster rollout for a wider range of people.

People other than health care workers and senior citizens will start receiving booster shots in March, as the initially planned eight-month interval between the second and third dose has been shortened to at least seven months.

“Bringing forward the booster vaccination schedule is important, considering the omicron infection situation around the world,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters on Thursday after a meeting with Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Shigeyuki Goto and Noriko Horiuchi, the minister in charge of vaccinations.

Kishida said he aims to further expedite the booster campaign in a TV program Thursday. “I’d like to work with local governments so that the interval period can be as short as six months,” he said.

About 65 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines will be distributed to local governments and other entities by the end of March, the health ministry announced. Previously, the ministry said about 48 million doses would be delivered by that date, but through negotiations with pharmaceutical firms, more doses will be procured ahead of schedule.

About 20 million doses are expected to be distributed in April. The 85 million doses planned to be delivered through April will be enough for 85% of people who are eligible for booster shots.

The booster vaccination rate for the entire population stands at just 0.8%, with the rollout currently limited to health care workers and residents of elderly care homes.

The government hopes that moving up the schedule for all eligible residents will reduce the number of patients who develop severe symptoms and ensure health care services can be maintained.

The Tokyo metropolitan government announced Thursday it would ask the central government to apply quasi-emergency priority measures for the capital if the occupancy rate of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients reaches 20% — the rate was 15% as of Thursday. It will ask the central government to declare a state of emergency if the rate reaches 50%.