Dry ice, containers and overworked doctors: Olympic hurdles for Japan's vaccine roll-out

TOKYO – Japan’s vaccination rollout faces logistical hurdles that could further delay the slow campaign, experts and officials say, complicating plans to get large-scale coronavirus vaccinations in time for the Olympics.

Japan is already the last major industrialized country to start vaccinating. It is likely to be hampered on the ground by a shortage of bins and dry ice, as well as difficulties in recruiting medical staff, more than a dozen people involved in the vaccination campaign told Reuters.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said vaccines were critical to a successful Olympics after last year’s delay. The first recordings for medical staff are scheduled for the end of February, leaving only 145 days until the games begin on July 23.

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By then, Japan will have to give around 870,000 injections a day to vaccinate half of its population, with two shots per person.

“The government’s plan is putting a huge strain on individual communities as they hand out the vaccines,” said Koji Wada, advisor on the government’s Covid-19 response. “Large metropolitan areas like Tokyo may have the infrastructure to roll out vaccinations smoothly, but more rural areas … might have more difficulties.”

Companies that ship medication say they may not have enough specialized containers for Pfizer Inc’s vaccine, which must be stored at minus 75 degrees Celsius. At least initially, the Pfizer vaccine is the only one used in Japan.

A man walks past a countdown clock for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games at Tokyo Central Station on Monday.Koji Sasahara / AP

A government source told Reuters that officials only began assessing whether there were enough containers or dry ice to pack them up late last year.

Japanese vaccine czar Taro Kono outlined the extent of the challenge last week. The coordination of the medical staff, the transport, the manufacture of the freezer, the needle disposal and dealing with local governments will be done by different ministries, he said on Twitter.

Medical staff, already exhausted from caring for a third deadly wave of infections, must be mobilized to take pictures of the unapproved vaccine.

Before those initial bumps, the Japanese Ministry of Health carried out sham vaccinations on Wednesday at a gym at a nursing school in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture.

There, nurses took yellow-vest volunteers into mock injection booths and then left them in a waiting area for 30 minutes to check for allergic reactions.

With five nurses, the facility could treat about 30 patients an hour and, according to official figures, would open and close depending on vaccine supplies.

“I hope this exercise can serve as an example that can be used or adapted elsewhere in the country,” Kawasaki Mayor Norihiko Fukuda told reporters.

The opposition Democratic Party for People’s Leader Yuichiro Tamaki, who urged Kono and Suga on a vaccination schedule, predicted that only a fifth of the Japanese population could be vaccinated in time for the Olympics.

“You need at least 60 percent to achieve herd immunity for us to be exposed to a fourth or fifth wave of infections,” he told Reuters.

Japan has bought enough Pfizer vaccines for 72 million people, more than half of its population. The government buys around 20,000 special coolers and procures huge quantities of dry ice for transport.

Japan produces about 350,000 tons of dry ice a year, but it’s mostly used for food preservation, according to an official from one of the largest manufacturers. To transport the vaccine, the government requires a granular or powdered ice that can keep temperatures colder than the standard dry ice blocks used for food.

“It’s not just about being able to change a part on a machine, the production method (for the ice cream) is different,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “The conversion would take several months.”

Transportation company Nippon Express Co Ltd was involved in talks to distribute the Pfizer vaccine but relied on the drug manufacturer to provide special containers, a spokesman said.

By February, the company will have completed four specialized drug warehouses across Japan, but these are not designed to hold ultra-cold products like the Pfizer vaccine, he said.

Industrial refrigerator maker Nihon Freezer Co is building 2,300 freezers for the government, but with no formal contract until the vaccine is approved, a company official said.

“We made about half of these and should have the rest ready by June,” the official said of the freezers that are made in Denmark. “It was difficult to find enough components because production suddenly increased.”

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