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Japan’s vaccination rate hits G7 milestone but may top out at 80%

With more than 70% of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the highest proportions among developed countries, vaccinations in Japan are expected to slow down and the overall rate will likely plateau at around 80% by late November.

Despite an initially slow rollout, Japan is now ranked No. 3 for its vaccination rate among the Group of Seven industrialized countries — after Canada and Italy — with 70.6% of some 127 million residents in the country, including foreign nationals, now fully inoculated, according to Cabinet Secretariat data released Wednesday.

The focus will now be on speeding up the inoculation of younger generations, which have a lower vaccination rate, and administering booster shots to older people and those with pre-existing conditions, who are likely to see waning immunity as winter approaches.

Amid the success of the vaccination campaign, a worrying development is the rise in new infections among people under 18 that has been seen since August, in part because the vaccines have not been approved for people under 12 — a demographic that makes up 9% of the population.

About 47.8% of people age 12 to 19 have received a second shot, compared with 57.1% for people in their 20s, 60.8% for people in their 30s and 70% for people in their 40s, according to the government data.

This is partly because the rollout for the general public started with older people, with many younger people having to wait longer to get their shots. Some local governments have been offering incentives such as cars and other goods to entice people to get vaccinated, especially younger generations.

In a more positive sign, over 90% of people age 70 and above, excluding centenarians, are fully inoculated.

But as more people become fully vaccinated, the speed of the inoculation rollout is slowing down. Daily inoculations across the country declined to an average 666,000 shots over the past week, down from 1.09 million four weeks earlier, according to calculations by The Japan Times based on government data, with more than 75% of eligible residents being fully inoculated. It took around three weeks to push the rate from 60% to 70%.

The government data showed that 76.9% of people had received at least their first shot, and those still waiting for their second dose are expected to get it by late November. Nonetheless, the government is still committed to a target of finishing vaccinations for all people who want to receive a COVID-19 shot by an early date in November, estimating that the rate of fully-vaccinated individuals could approach 80%.

Vaccination has been proven to provide high protection and efficacy against infection, severe disease and death, and it’s often cited as one of the main factors that kept this summer’s fifth wave — Japan’s largest of the pandemic so far — from getting worse.

An analysis by Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura, an infectious disease expert and member of a government advisory board, has shown that the vaccines prevented the infection of about 650,000 people and stopped some 7,200 deaths between March and September.

But even if Japan’s vaccination rate reaches 90%, 100,000 people could die from COVID-19 over the course of a year if people return to their pre-pandemic lives without proper precautions, according to a study by Yuki Furuse, Kyoto University’s associate professor of infectious diseases.

The Shibuya crossing in Tokyo on Oct. 9 | BLOOMBERG
The Shibuya crossing in Tokyo on Oct. 9 | BLOOMBERG

The government’s COVID-19 subcommittee also acknowledged the limitations of the vaccines for the first time last month, saying that various findings and insights, including those from abroad, have shown that even if all willing individuals are vaccinated, it’s difficult to acquire herd immunity.

Though Japan’s new daily infections fell to 152 cases on Monday, the lowest since July 1 last year, many experts project a rebound to start from late October, with a peak sometime around January.

Considering the previous year’s pattern, the number of new cases could balloon to five or 10 times this summer’s peak, said Masahiro Kami, executive director of the Tokyo-based nongovernmental Medical Governance Research Institute. The government is planning to administer booster shots to health care workers from Dec. 1 and older people from next year, with plans to administer the shot at least eight months after an individual’s second dose.

But that’s too late, according to Kami, who is urging the government to swiftly begin giving booster shots to older people to prevent deaths in the next wave.

“Israel mostly finished inoculating older people by January but saw a jump in COVID-19 deaths by June, indicating the vaccine’s effectiveness (for them) against severe illness and death mostly expires in about five months,” he said.

“Many older people could die this winter,” he said. “Some vaccine centers are already empty, with plenty of vaccines remaining. The health ministry is putting elderly people in grave danger. What is called for right now is for the health minister to make the right political judgment and approve the booster shot.”

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