AP Interview: Japan minister urges young adults to get shots

Japan Vaccine Minister AP Interview

TOKYO (AP) — As Olympics host Tokyo saw another record number of coronavirus cases Wednesday, Japan’s vaccination minister said the speed of the country’s inoculation campaign is less urgent than getting shots to young adults, whom some health experts are blaming for the current surge in infections.

Taro Kono told The Associated Press that Japan is “overshooting” its goal of a million shots a day, so “speed doesn’t matter anymore.” He said Japan is averaging about 10 million shots a week after a late start that critics have blamed on extra red tape.

“Even if we slow down a little bit, I’m OK. Rather, we need to reach out to the younger people, so that they would feel that it’s necessary for them to get vaccinated,” Kono said during an interview in his office. “If we could vaccinate (those in their) 20s or people in (their) 30s for 80% or higher, it would be a good number for me.”

He said officials will turn to the internet to get the message out to young adults and work to combat vaccine misinformation. Young adults are now eligible for vaccinations under Japan's largely age-based immunization system, but many are not eager.

Tokyo reported 3,177 new coronavirus cases Wednesday, an all-time high for the city and the first time it exceeded 3,000 infections in a day. The new cases bring the total for the Japanese capital to 206,745 since the pandemic began.

Tokyo is under its fourth state of emergency, which will last through the Olympics and stop two days before the Paralympics begin Aug. 24. Experts had earlier warned that the more contagious delta variant could cause a surge during the Olympics, which started Friday.

Some scientists have questioned holding the Tokyo Games at all, and there is widespread public opposition to them. Many fear that the tens of thousands of visitors will make the virus situation worse.

Kono said he was confident that a “bubble” is keeping Olympic visitors away from regular Japanese citizens, reducing the risk of more cases. He also said he didn't think the Games would create a “Tokyo variant” of the virus that could spread around the globe.

“We’re not really worried about that issue,” Kono said.

The International Olympic Committee says more than 80% of athletes and staff staying in the Olympic Village have been vaccinated — and they are expected to remain largely in the locked-down athletes’ village and venues. Still, the bubble is based more on the honor system than official enforcement.

Vaccination rates are not clear for other participants coming from abroad, many of whom are staying in Tokyo hotels, and experts warn that even strict rules won’t prevent people from mingling, especially among non-athletes.

“There's a limit to the bubble,” with reporters and other people going in and out, said Dr. Kazuhiro Tateda, a Toho University infectious diseases expert who is on a government COVID-19 panel.

While Japan has so far kept its cases and deaths lower than many other countries, its vaccination campaign started with health care workers only in mid-February, behind many other large economies. Japan required additional clinical testing for the vaccines, a time-consuming step that many experts called medically meaningless.

Kono said Parliament demanded the additional tests, and that there’s a long history of people suing the government over vaccination campaigns.

“Now we’ve learned a lesson, so if there’s going to be another pandemic, I think we would do it a different way, for sure,” Kono said.