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Japan to shorten booster shot interval for medical workers and seniors on omicron concerns

As concern grows over the omicron variant of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced that Japan will shorten the timeline for booster shots for 31 million medical workers and elderly people.

Unveiling the country’s beefed-up COVID-19 measures, the prime minister said Friday that the interval between second shots and booster shots, which was originally set for at least 8 months, will be six months for health care workers and those living in nursing homes.

Starting in February, seniors who aren’t living in nursing facilities will also be able to receive their third shots seven months after their second jabs, Kishida said.

“Fears about the omicron variant are spreading, so I’ve decided to move up the schedule to prioritize senior citizens, since the effectiveness of vaccination diminishes faster for them while they are also at higher risks of developing severe illness,” Kishida told reporters.

The government initially had planned to bring forward the booster schedule by two months for medical workers and nursing home residents if their facilities are hit by a cluster of infections.

Kishida spoke with Albert Bourla, chief executive of Pfizer Inc., on Friday and asked the U.S. pharmaceutical firm to accelerate the shipment schedule of its vaccine, according to a government official.

Calls for shortening the interval period for the booster shots have been growing due to the highly transmissible omicron variant.

A health care worker administers a booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Chiba University Hospital. | BLOOMBERG
A health care worker administers a booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Chiba University Hospital. | BLOOMBERG

A ruling Liberal Democratic Party panel in charge of the vaccination program compiled a proposal for the government on Friday that would see boosters administered six months after a person receives their second shot.

The government currently has 5 million doses of Moderna Inc.’s vaccine in storage, which will be used for booster jabs.

Kishida also disclosed other COVID-19 measures, including the introduction of drugs taken orally.

He said the government has already secured 1.6 million doses of medicine developed by another U.S. pharmaceutical firm, Merck & Co., while it has reached a basic agreement with Pfizer to secure 2 million doses of its pill.

The government will approve Merck’s drug soon and it will be available at medical facilities by the end of the month, Kishida said.

Pfizer has said its oral drug can be administered to those with mild symptoms and an interim analysis showed the medicine was nearly 90% effective in reducing hospitalizations and deaths in high-risk patients.

Kishida also said Japan will strengthen its COVID-19 testing capabilities to offer free PCR tests, without requiring reservations, for those who are unable to get inoculations due to health reasons in all prefectures, as people are more likely to dine and drink outside their homes during the holidays.

Information from Kyodo added

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