Tokyo Olympic venues won’t have spectators

Elderly residents of Sumida Ward rest at box seats after receiving their first dose of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine at the Ryogoku Kokugikan sporting arena, in Tokyo on Monday, May 24. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

Japan started inoculating its population of 126 million people with Pfizer-BioNTech shots more than two months after the vaccine rolled out in countries such as the United States and United Kingdom. And after four months, only 15% of its population is fully vaccinated.

With one of the lowest rates of vaccine confidence in the world, the government says its deliberately cautious movement on vaccine approval is to build public trust.

According to a study by The Lancet that mapped vaccine confidence in 149 countries between 2015 and 2019, fewer than 30% of people in Japan strongly agreed vaccines were safe, important and effective — compared to 50% in the US.

“I think it is more important for the Japanese government to show the Japanese people that we have done everything possible to prove the efficacy and the safety of the vaccine — to encourage the Japanese people to take the vaccine,” said Taro Kono, the minister in charge of Japan’s coronavirus vaccine rollout. “At the end of the day, we might have started slower, but we thought it would be more effective.”

A history of scandals:

Japan’s vaccine resistance dates back to the 1970s, when two infants died within 24 hours after receiving the combined diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough) vaccination. The vaccine was temporarily suspended but confidence had already been rattled. For several years, infant vaccination rates fell, leading to a rise in cases of whooping cough.

In the late 1980s, there was another scare with the introduction of a Japanese-produced measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. After court action and a hefty damages payout, the combined shot was discontinued in 1993 and replaced with individual vaccines.

Dr. Yuho Horikoshi, an expert in infectious diseases, says the lawsuits led to a “vaccination gap,” where no vaccines were approved in Japan for about 15 years.

Read more on this history here.