Throughout the past year, as Europe first and then the United States suffered extremely high coronavirus infections and deaths, countries on the Pacific Rim avoided disaster with a range of methods. South Korea has extensively tested. Australia and New Zealand are stranded. In Japan, people wore masks and answered calls to isolate themselves.
Now the roles have been reversed. Those countries that have largely brought the virus under control are among the slowest in the developed world to vaccinate their residents, while countries like Britain and the United States that have suffered from severe epidemics are leaping forward with vaccinations.
The United States has fully immunized nearly a quarter of the population, and Britain has given the first vaccines to nearly half of its people. In contrast, Australia and South Korea have vaccinated less than 3 percent of their population, and in Japan and New Zealand, not even 1 percent of the population has received a vaccine.
To some extent, latecomers take advantage of the luxury of time offered by their comparatively low number of infections and deaths. And they all rely on vaccines developed – and, for now, manufactured – elsewhere.
Now, the delays risk reversing their relative public health successes and delaying economic recovery, as highly contagious variants of the virus emerge and bottlenecks slow vaccine shipments around the world.
“The very success of the disease control reduces the motivation and effort put into setting up rapid fire vaccination clinics,” said Robert Booy, infectious disease and vaccine specialist at the University of Sydney in Australia. “When people die left, right and center, the need is obvious.”
“We have to recognize the complacency that is being built,” added Dr Booy. “We are just a very publicized event away from the trouble.”
Nowhere is this a greater risk than in Japan, which faces an increase in cases and deaths as the start of the postponed Tokyo Olympics is less than 100 days away.
Olympic organizers have said they can run the Games safely by turning to the kinds of voluntary measures Japanese authorities have relied on to manage the pandemic.
But those efforts are under strain, as the number of cases of the virus in Japan peaks since January, with more than 4,500 new infections reported on Friday. Vaccinations are only just beginning and the general public will not be close to being fully vaccinated by the opening ceremony in July.
The slow rollout in the Asia-Pacific region is starting to frustrate some residents who have grown weary of more than a year of restrictions on travel, dining and family reunions. They are eager to come out of the purgatory of these measures and return to normal life, but relief may still be months away.
Erika Inoue, 24, who works in a research group in Tokyo that consults on projects for local governments and businesses, said she was envious of friends in the United States who received their photos.
“Among my group of friends, I am the only one who does not get the vaccine,” said Ms. Inoue, who hopes to attend a friend’s wedding in Tunisia. “I can’t wait.”
Japan, South Korea and Australia have all fallen behind on vaccination deadlines they set months ago.
Some parts of Tokyo started giving injections to people over 65 last week. In South Korea, where authorities initially said they would be able to immunize around one million people per day, they approached an average of 27,000 people in the first three months of vaccination. This month, Australian health officials abandoned their goal of vaccinating the entire population of the country by the end of the year.
In Australia and Japan, authorities blamed supply problems in Europe for the slow deployment. Australia said the European Union had not provided 3.1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. A spokesperson for the European Commission said only 250,000 doses were withheld in Australia by Italy in March, but Australian officials say the reality is that the rest of the doses, blocked or not, are simply not being blocked. not arrived.
Australia faced further complications as it advised against giving the AstraZeneca vaccine to people under the age of 50 after reporting very rare blood clots.
In Japan, Taro Kono, the minister overseeing the immunization program, complained that the European Union is granting shipment-by-shipment approval rather than approving multiple shipments at a time. “We could have our vaccines stopped by the EU,” he said, citing the doses withheld in Australia.
The European Union has authorized shipments of more than 39 million doses to Japan, said Patricia Flor, the Union’s ambassador to Japan, in an interview. “I would totally and absolutely reject any statement that would say that the progress of the vaccination campaign in Japan is linked in any way to delays or problems with deliveries from the EU,” she said.
Supply issues or not, other factors also caused delays. Japan is demanding national clinical trials of new vaccines, and in Japan and South Korea, authorities have been careful to persuade people who say they are reluctant to get the vaccine right away.
Kim Minho, 27, a researcher at the Seoul Engineering Research Institute, said the government has become too dependent on measures such as social distancing to reduce infection rates. “Korea was late for the vaccine festival,” he said.
A similar dynamic is true in Japan. Experts said the country has simply failed to negotiate contracts requiring early deliveries of vaccine doses. In a statement, Pfizer said it would meet its commitment of 144 million doses in Japan by the end of 2021. Japan has yet to give regulatory approval to the Moderna or AstraZeneca vaccines, although it has contracted with the two companies to buy millions of doses. .
Ministry of Health officials “are public health professionals,” said Dr Hiroyuki Moriuchi, professor of global health at Nagasaki University. “But when it comes to business or contract drafting, they are neither professionals nor experts in this field.”
“If Japan had the firm awareness that this is a feeling of crisis,” he added, “they would not have relied solely on officials from the Ministry of Health” to negotiate such contracts.
Kono, the minister overseeing the vaccination campaign, predicts the country will deliver enough doses to the country’s 36 million elderly people by the end of June. During a press briefing, he gave no predictions on when the rest of the population could be vaccinated.
Although foreign spectators have been excluded from the Olympics, Games organizers have said they will not require foreign athletes, Olympic officials or journalists to be vaccinated to enter Japan. On Friday, Seiko Hashimoto, chairman of the Tokyo organizing committee, said unlike other countries, Japan did not intend to prioritize its athletes for vaccination.
In public polls, more than 70% of Japanese respondents say the Olympics should be postponed or canceled due to the pandemic. Media polls have found that nearly three-quarters of the public are unhappy with the delays in vaccination.
Citing the “slow deployment of the vaccine”, as well as the failure to contain national transmission of the coronavirus in Japan, the authors of a report published last week in the British Medical Journal urged Tokyo organizers to reconsider plans to ‘hosting the Games’ as a matter of urgency. “
In Japan, where only doctors and nurses are allowed to administer vaccines, less than a quarter of health workers have been vaccinated, although injections began in February. Even a doctor who administered injections to older citizens last week in Hachioji, a city west of Tokyo, had not himself been vaccinated.
Dr Eiji Kusumi, director of the Navitas Clinic, a private network of medical clinics in Tokyo, said its workers had not been vaccinated. “It’s the same as World War II,” he said, “when the public was told, without bullets or food, to fight with bamboo spears.”
In South Korea and elsewhere, residents fear the country’s early successes in dealing with the virus will be slowly eroded by the vaccine shortage.
“I get frustrated when I see other countries like the United States start to return to normal,” said Suh Gaeun, 23, a research analyst in Seoul. “The Koreans have been very obedient in complying with government pandemic regulations. And yet we are struggling to get enough vaccines for everyone. We go downhill.
Yu Young Jin contributed reporting from Seoul.