Why is Japan Procuring 521 Million Doses of COVID-19 Vaccine?

With 126 million population, Japan is signing many deals for the vaccines, much like other rich countries of the world

Japan is going all out to stockpile sufficient COVID-19 vaccine in order to immunize the country's population four times over. The government hopes that the move will inspire confidence that the nation can host a delayed summer Olympics in 2021.

Following in the footsteps of several rich countries, Japan is inking many deals as some of the vaccines are likely to fail in clinical trials or may require multiple doses. Experts have termed such an approach as a provident one.

Holding Olympics at All Costs

Coronavirus Vaccine
Representational Image Twitter

But Japan has something else riding on a successful mass rollout of a vaccine: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's enduring aim to bring thousands of athletes and fans to Tokyo for the Games in 2021 after the event fell through this year due to the pandemic.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the top government spokesman, said Japan was working with Olympic organizers 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."

Hoping for a Miracle

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. "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 hosting the Games. "The plan is, hope for a miracle and then capitalize on that miracle," said Michael Cucek, a political science professor at Temple University Japan. "But the time frame for that is getting narrower and narrower."

Picture for representation
Japan's Prime Minister Abe stands in front of Japan's national flag Reuters

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. 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 from around the world.

A Humungous Logistical Challenge

Given the size of the events and people coming from all over the world, holding the Olympics require "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 thousands of athletes around the world 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 immunizing athletes and visitors before or after landing in Japan will be enormous.

A "very, very essential factor" for the Olympic hosts will be when an effective vaccine will be ready and how it will be distributed, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told Reuters on Tuesday. "We will do our best to prevent coronavirus infections here in Japan and also to welcome the athletes from all over the world."

(With inputs from agencies)