Japan, eyeing Olympics, lines up half-billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine

FILE PHOTO: The giant Olympic rings, which are being temporarily removed for maintenance, are seen behind Japan's national flag, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the waterfront area at Odaiba Marine Park in Tokyo, Japan August 6, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan is making an aggressive move to grab enough coronavirus vaccine to inoculate its population four times over, a push the government hopes will instil confidence that it can host a delayed Summer Olympics next year.

Like other rich countries, Japan is signing multiple deals because some of the vaccines could fail in clinical trials or require more than one dose.

But Japan has something else riding on a successful mass rollout of a vaccine: outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's aim to bring thousands of athletes and fans to Tokyo for the Games, postponed from this year due to the pandemic.

On the day he announced his resignation as premier, Abe sought to reassure domestic and foreign audiences that the coronavirus was under control. He pledged there would be enough vaccine for Japan by the middle of 2021 and said the nation would relax its travel ban from Sept. 1.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga earlier had said Japan was working with Olympic organisers on how to go ahead with the Games, tying the effort to the need to secure a vaccine.

The various companies "will probably be able to produce a vaccine between the end of this year and next March", Suga told Reuters in an interview this week. "There are a lot of considerations, but we want to hold the Olympics at all costs."

Japan is on track to have 521 million doses of five different vaccines in 2021, compared with a population of 126 million. Recent deals include global arrangements with such drugmakers as Pfizer Inc and AstraZeneca PLC , as well as local deals with the likes of Shionogi & Co. <4507.T>

"You have to bet evenly to avoid getting nothing," said Tomoya Saito, director at Japan's National Institute of Public Health.


Some critics contend that Japan's rush to secure supplies is driven largely by a political desire to show the world it is fully committed to the Games.

"The plan is, hope for a miracle and then capitalise on that miracle," said Michael Cucek, a political science professor at Temple University Japan. "But the timeframe for that is getting narrower and narrower." Health ministry and cabinet Office officials did not respond to queries about whether Japan's drive to secure coronavirus vaccines was connected to the Olympics.

Abe pledged to increase testing capacity to 200,000 per day along with securing vaccine supplies. He also said Japan's travel ban, one of the strictest in the world, would ease on Sept. 1.

From that date, non-citizen residents of Japan and visa holders can leave and reenter the country, with prior authorisation. They must also demonstrate a negative coronavirus test result within 72 hours of returning to Japan, cabinet officials said at a briefing on Friday.Japanese officials have discussed putting on a "simplified" Games, originally expected to attract 600,000 visitors. But the event would still involve some 11,000 athletes.

Holding the Olympics requires "mass quantities of an effective vaccine", said Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute of Population Health at King's College, London.

Staging an Olympics in a pandemic will be a huge logistical challenge, as athletes will have to train and travel to events and many more thousands of fans will have to be accommodated at a time when many countries may still be in lockdown. Japan still has a travel ban in place covering more than 140 countries.

Even with a viable vaccine, the additional challenge of immunising athletes and visitors before or after landing in Japan will be enormous.

A "very, very essential factor" will be when an effective vaccine will be ready and how it will be distributed, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told Reuters.

"We will do our best to prevent coronavirus infections here in Japan and also to welcome the athletes from all over the world."

(Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by David Dolan, William Mallard and Nick Macfie)

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