Japan pulls 1.6M COVID vaccine doses over suspected contamination

Tokyo — Japan’s Health Ministry has pulled about 1.63 million doses of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine out of use after 39 unused vials at eight vaccination sites were discovered to be contaminated with a still-unspecified substance. No safety issues have been reported. All of the suspect vials were manufactured in Spain.

Moderna has been sent primarily to mass-vaccination centers in Japan, such as universities and large companies, and it was unclear how badly the incident might set back Japan’s already-delayed inoculation campaign. More than 800 vaccination sites were affected.

Touring a vaccination clinic in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward on Thursday, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told Japanese media that he’d ordered health officials to “make safety our top priority” in responding to the tainted vaccine issue. He offered assurances that the incident “would not have a significant impact” on the country’s vaccination program, which lags significantly behind those of other major industrialized nations. 

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Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (C) and his wife Mariko Suga meet with first lady Jill Biden (L) at the Akasaka State Guest House in Tokyo on July 22, 2021 on the eve of Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.  STR/JAPAN POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Suga, whose popularity has taken a beating over his handling of the pandemic, stands for re-election to the ruling party presidency on September 29. The leader of the governing party automatically becomes prime minister in Japan.

One of Suga’s rivals, former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, threw his hat in the ring on Thursday, suggesting he would take more aggressive measures to fight the spread of COVID-19.

As of Wednesday, according to the Prime Minister’s Office, only 42.6% of Japan’s general population was fully vaccinated.

While Japan has also approved both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, concerns over blood clot issues delayed rollout of the latter until this week; it is being restricted to those 40 and over, as in Britain. 

COVID and the Paralympics

The Tokyo Paralympics announced on Thursday — Day 2 of competition — that the first participant had been hospitalized for COVID since the Games began. The patient was described as a foreign non-athlete, without life-threatening symptoms. Fifteen others, including two foreign competitors staying at the Athletes’ Village, have tested positive, for a total of 184 Paralympics-related cases.

Japan’s latest wave of COVID-19 has dented the spirit of joyous empowerment and positivity that the Paralympics is trying to convey. 

The challenges of reporting at the Olympics 01:02

Seijiro Takeshita, a professor who lives with his family southwest of Tokyo, told CBS News that the fear among residents is palpable: “I would say that in terms of frustration and anger and, most of all, worry and anxiety, is definitely reaching its peak.”

Restrictions expand with hospitals full

On Wednesday, with the Delta variant driving daily cases beyond 25,000, an existing state of emergency in the Tokyo region was expanded to 21 of the country’s 47 prefectures.

Including prefectures covered by a less-onerous quasi-state of emergency, nearly the entire country was under some form of anti-viral restrictions again as of Thursday. The number of severe cases in Japan, now at 1,964, has hit new highs daily for the last few weeks.

Tragic stories of patients unable to get admitted to overwhelmed hospitals and forced to recuperate at home have become alarmingly common. 

Last week in Chiba, east of the capital, health officials revealed that a pregnant woman in her 30s suffering from COVID had been unable to find a hospital bed and went into premature labor at home. The infant was declared dead soon after.