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Health ministry panel backs Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for a booster shot

A health ministry panel approved the use of Moderna Inc.’s COVID-19 vaccine as a booster shot on Wednesday as Japan hopes to speed up the rollout of third doses amid worries over the highly transmissible omicron variant.

The health ministry is expected to give the fast-track approval to the U.S drugmaker’s vaccine as early as Thursday, which would mark the second such approval after the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech jab.

Japan began administering booster shots on Dec. 1, starting with health care workers. Moderna’s shot is set to be allocated to a workplace vaccination program starting around March. Studies have shown that, unlike Pfizer’s vaccine, a Moderna booster containing only half the dosage of the first two shots is needed to beef up immunity. It is also expected to have a low rate of side effects such as myocarditis, according to the U.K. Health Security Agency.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said the government plans to allow booster shots to be administered six months after the second shot whenever possible — a reduced timeline from the current plan of eight months.

The government has been negotiating with Pfizer to procure the jabs ahead of schedule, but the lack of supplies is getting in the way. So far, the six-month interval has been approved only for special cases, such as patients, residents and workers at health care facilities and nursing homes hit by infection clusters.

The government says all eligible residents should get the vaccine and the health ministry highly recommends a booster for elderly people and those with medical conditions who are at a higher risk of developing serious symptoms of COVID-19. Nursing and health care workers who are at a higher risk of exposure to the virus are also strongly advised to get the booster shot.

More people are likely to get a Moderna booster shot than was the case for the first two shots, since the government is backing a mix-and-match strategy with the different vaccines.

For the first two jabs, the number of Pfizer shots outnumbered Moderna’s by a ratio of around 5 to 1, according to calculations based on Cabinet Secretariat data. But that ratio is set to be around 3 to 2 for booster shots, Noriko Horiuchi, the minister in charge of the vaccine rollout, said Friday.

That means people who have received two doses of vaccines made by Pfizer or AstraZeneca PLC can get Moderna’s booster through workplace vaccination sites. Those who received their first and second shots overseas can also get Moderna’s booster in Japan, the health ministry says, as long as the first two shots were made by Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca.

First and second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been authorized for use in Japan for people age 12 and over, while AstraZeneca’s has been approved for people age 40 and over, in principle. But for booster shots, only people age 18 and over would be eligible for the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

Studies have shown the vaccines’ efficacy wanes to around 50% over six months. Experts say vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, urging eligible residents to get third doses.

Pfizer said last week that its initial laboratory study demonstrated that antibodies generated by a booster shot neutralize the omicron variant, although two doses may still induce protection against severe disease.

Dr. Hiroyuki Moriuchi, professor of pediatrics at Nagasaki University, said the sooner people get the booster shot the better. That’s especially true when it comes to elderly people and others at higher risks of developing serious COVID-19 symptoms who received the shot more than six months ago, the professor said, as the vaccine’s efficacy may have declined in the face of the omicron variant.

“The vaccine should work against the omicron variant,” said Moriuchi, comparing the COVID-19 shots to the flu vaccine.

Moriuchi pointed out that even though breakthrough infections occur among people who receive the flu shot, vaccination is still effective in curbing the number of severe cases by up to around 70%.

“So even if the effectiveness of the vaccine may decline against omicron, I would still recommend the vaccine as before,” he said.

Kishida told a parliamentary committee Wednesday that if Pfizer and Moderna succeed in developing a vaccine catered specifically toward the omicron variant, Japan would be able to receive the latest vaccines next year as part of its contracts with the pharmaceutical firms.

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