Ahead of the Olympics, Japan’s vaccine minister says virus situation in Tokyo could worsen

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Japan is working closely with the International Olympic Committee to prepare for the Games and despite concerns about the upsurge in Covid-19 cases, there are no plans to postpone, the Japanese minister responsible for vaccinations said.

“Unless they decide otherwise, we just have to prepare for the Games, how to control the situation. I think that changes almost every day, so they have to be prepared for that. But I don’t think so. ‘They plan to postpone,’ Taro Kono told TBEN’s Martin Soong on Wednesday.

The Olympic torch was removed from public streets in Osaka on Wednesday as the prefecture declared a state of emergency after coronavirus cases reached record levels.

“Yes, (the) situation in Osaka is of particular concern,” said Kono, who is also minister of regulatory reform. A new virus variant similar to the one first discovered in the UK “is spreading rapidly” in Osaka, he added.

“We have identified a similar mutation in Tokyo, so we fear (that) Tokyo will follow Osaka in a few weeks. So we really have to be careful with the situation,” he said.

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A man wearing a face mask stands behind the Olympic symbols of the five intertwined rings photographed near the Tokyo National Stadium.

Images by James Matsumoto, SOPA | LightRocket | Getty Images

Osaka’s population is much smaller than Tokyo’s, but the city reported 878 new cases on April 7, compared to 555 in Tokyo on the same day.

The Summer Olympics are set to officially kick off in Tokyo on July 23, in just over 100 days. They were delayed last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nonetheless, the Games will be significantly reduced compared to previous years, as international spectators were not allowed to enter the country due to concerns over Covid-19.

“Well unfortunately we may not have that many spectators watching the game at the stadium, but most people will still watch on TV,” Kono said.

Delays in vaccine deployment in Japan

“Unfortunately, we have not been able to develop a vaccine nationally, and we have to rely on importing (the) vaccine from the EU,” Kono said. “Right now, we have cleared the Pfizer vaccine and it will start for seniors next Monday.”

He said the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca will be “very important” because it will be made in Japan, which will interrupt some negotiations.

His interview came hours before EU and UK drug regulators announced on Wednesday that there could be a possible link between the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine and rare blood clotting problems. Both regulators, however, stressed that the benefits of the vaccine always outweigh the risks.

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My job is to bring the vaccine to Japan from Europe and (to) vaccinate as many people as possible.

Taro Kono

Japanese Minister of Vaccines

“The biggest headache for me is going through (the) EU transparency mechanism,” Kono said, referring to a measure that allows EU member states to impose restrictions on vaccine exports.

“If we have (a) household vaccine or a locally produced vaccine… more than half of my headaches (would go away),” he said.

When asked if his handling of the coronavirus outbreak in Japan could affect his chances of being the next prime minister, Kono was dismissive.

“My job is to bring the vaccine to Japan from Europe and (to) vaccinate as many people as possible,” he said. “You don’t have to think about being prime minister. You just have to do your job, to protect people’s (lives).”

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