The head of a prefecture in Japan has said the area is considering pulling out of the Olympic torch relay, as the nation became the latest major economy to begin its vaccine rollout.
Tatsuya Maruyama, the governor of Shimane prefecture, said on Wednesday that it could withdraw from the key Olympic event and has called for the Tokyo 2020 Games to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A potential boycott of the relay, which is due to start in Fukushima on 25 March, will add to doubts over the feasibility of holding the Games in five months’ time, when large swathes of the host country’s population will still not have been vaccinated against Covid-19.
An estimated 10,000 runners are expected to carry the torch through Japan’s 47 prefectures, passing through 859 locations over 121 days before the opening ceremony at Tokyo’s national stadium on 23 July. Shimane, located on the Japan Sea coast, is due to host the event in mid-May.
“Should the present conditions continue, I think holding the Olympics should be avoided,” Maruyama said. “But given this situation where those who were meant to create an environment where we could safely enjoy the Olympics have not done what they need to do … I can’t help but say that it would be hard for Shimane to contribute to the hosting of the Olympic torch relay.”
He said that he wasn’t calling for the relay to be cancelled yet, but for conditions to be watched over the next month or so.
While cases have declined since the prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and several other hard-hit areas in early January, Japan’s regions fear that allowing people to move more freely when the emergency period ends will trigger a new wave of infections.
Shimane, with a population of around 666,000, has reported just 280 coronavirus cases, compared with more than 107,000 in Tokyo.
Any hopes that the speedy development of Covid-19 vaccines would boost the Games’ chances have been blunted by experts who say Japan will still be some way from achieving “herd immunity” by the summer.
Preparations for the Olympics have also been frustrated by the resignation last week of the organising committee’s president, Yoshiro Mori, over sexist remarks and by public opposition, with recent opinion polls showing about 80% of people want the Games to be cancelled or postponed again.
Japan started administering the Pfizer vaccine to 40,000 frontline health workers on Wednesday, after stricter regulatory hurdles and higher levels of vaccine hesitancy left Japan’s rollout trailing behind those in dozens of other countries.
The first round of vaccinations are taking place at 100 public hospitals, with 20,000 of those receiving the jab to be monitored for any side effects until four weeks after they are given their second dose, media reports said. The two shots will be administered three weeks apart.
Kazuhiro Araki, the director of the Tokyo Medical Centre, said the vaccine was an “important part” of the battle against the virus.
“I thought as a director I should take the lead and get the shot,” he told reporters after becoming the first person to receive the shot. “I don’t like getting shots very much, but it wasn’t painful, so it was good. I was relieved.”
Vaccinations for 3.7 million other health workers will begin in mid-March, with those for 36 million people aged 65 and over to begin around April. People with preexisting health conditions and care home workers will also be prioritised.
But with inoculations for older people expected to take at least three months, it is unlikely that a significant portion of the general population – healthy people aged 16-64 – will have been vaccinated by early summer.
“We have been focusing on how to smoothly vaccinate the elderly, so we haven’t yet been strategically thinking about future shots for young people,” Taro Kono, the government minister overseeing the programme, told reporters on Tuesday.
Kono also acknowledged he had “no idea” how much of the population would be vaccinated by the time the Olympics take place.
“I’m not really taking the Olympics into consideration,” he said “I need to roll out the vaccine as I get the supply from Europe.”
Japan has reached deals with Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna to buy enough Covid-19 vaccine doses for its population of 126 million.
Japan has reported nearly 418,000 infections and just over 7,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic – relatively low figures that some say explain the lack of urgency in vaccinating its people.
“Japan looks to be quite late in the game,” Rasmus Bech Hansen, the founder of British research firm Airfinity, said recently. “They are dependent on importing many (vaccines) from the US. And at the moment, it doesn’t seem very likely they will get very large quantities of, for instance, the Pfizer vaccine.”
Hansen said Japan would probably not reach a 75% inoculation rate – a benchmark for herd immunity – until around October, months after the Games.