Vaccine laggard Japan steps up shots with company efforts

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Covid 19 Vaccine Minister Taro Kono, center, and Masayoshi Son, chief executive of technology company SoftBank Group Corp., left, speak to media after visiting an inoculation site set up by Japanese technology company SoftBank Group Corp. at a WeWork office Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in Tokyo. Japanese companies have joined the effort to speed up the countrys lagging coronavirus vaccine rollout before the Tokyo Olympics begin next month. (AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama)

TOKYO – Japanese companies have joined the effort to speed up the country’s lagging coronavirus vaccine rollout before the Tokyo Olympics begin next month.

Medical professionals were being inoculated with the Moderna vaccine Tuesday at a downtown Tokyo office of WeWork, an office-sharing company of energy and technology giant SoftBank.

The company plans 15 such sites to vaccinate 150,000 SoftBank group company employees and their families, and another 100,000 people living near the sites, SoftBank’s CEO Masayoshi Son said.

Japan’s vaccine rollout has been the slowest among developed nations, with about 5% of its population fully vaccinated. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is determined to hold the Olympics in Tokyo after a one-year delay and has made an ambitious pledge to finish vaccinating the country’s 36 million elderly people by the end of July, despite skepticism it’s possible.

Vaccinations have been slowed by bungled reservation procedures, unclear distribution plans and shortages of medical staff to give shots. The government recently unveiled workplace inoculation programs by major companies to supplement the efforts led by municipalities around the country.

Apart from SoftBank, other companies getting involved in inoculations include beverage manufacturer Suntory, online retailer Rakuten, airline ANA and taxi company Nihon Kotsu Co. and electronics makers Sony Corp., Panasonic Corp., Fujitsu and NEC Corp.

Automaker Toyota Motor Corp., reputed for “just in time” manufacturing, plans to vaccinate 80,000 people by Sept. 10, including 50,000 employees, as well as contract workers and suppliers.

The vaccines are provided for free and companies arrange for doctors to administer them.

The government minister in charge of vaccinations, Taro Kono, accompanied Son to the vaccination center. He later told an online news conference Tuesday that despite the late start, the pace of vaccinations in Japan has picked up and may reach Suga's target of 1 million shots per day later this month.

As of Tuesday, more than 2,300 companies and business groups have applied to conduct workplace inoculations, most of them starting next week and covering 11 million employees and their families, he said.

Kono acknowledged concerns that younger people are not keen to get the shots.

SoftBank is offering people in the southern city of Fukuoka who it fully vaccinates half-price discounts for tickets for SoftBank Hawks professional baseball games, Son said.

“I feel the need to speed up the vaccination rate for young people with such incentives,” said Son.

“Up to now, the message has been about restrictions on top of restrictions. This sends a positive message that, once you get fully vaccinated, we can become economically active, a forward-looking message about vaccinations,” he said.

At the WeWork site, rows of people sat in chairs, waiting their turn to enter curtained stalls where they received their shots from a doctor.

Bowing slightly to Son, Kono said he was thankful for SoftBank’s initiative, noting the vaccine rollout among Tokyo medical professionals had been especially slow.

“I’m delighted this has created a model that’s going so smoothly,” he said.


Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter