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U.S. trails its peers in first COVID-19 shots after Japan’s surge

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 15, 2021

Residents wait in line at a walk-in COVID-19 vaccination site focused on people ages 16 to 39 in the Shibuya district of Tokyo on Aug. 27.  (Soichiro Koriyama/Bloomberg)
Residents wait in line at a walk-in COVID-19 vaccination site focused on people ages 16 to 39 in the Shibuya district of Tokyo on Aug. 27. (Soichiro Koriyama/Bloomberg)
By Lisa Du Bloomberg

The U.S. is now last among the world’s most powerful democracies when it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations, squandering an early lead and plentiful supplies, as it was surpassed by Japan’s steady progress in rolling out shots.

Japan, which started its mass vaccination program in April, has given a first dose to 63.6% of its population, according to government figures released Tuesday. The U.S. has administered at least one dose to 63.1% of its residents, the lowest among the Group of Seven nations.

The U.S. has seen immunization rates stall as the issue becomes politicized and anti-vaccine groups gain ground. It’s a critical issue for President Joe Biden, who is trying to staunch an outbreak that has dogged the country all summer. There were more than 250,000 new infections reported Monday alone.

Last week, Biden announced a vaccine mandate for all federal employees, health care workers and employees at large companies. It might not be enough. Andy Slavitt, former Biden White House senior adviser for COVID-19 response, said in a tweet late Monday night that the U.S. will have the lowest vaccination level of all prosperous democracies by the end of September.

The vaccination rollout in Japan, which started off slow and late compared to other developed nations, has progressed quickly since early summer. Japan hit 1 million shots administered per day in mid-June and has maintained the pace while battling a wave of infections driven by the more transmissible delta variant. The U.S., meanwhile, hasn’t kept up after a fast, early start.

Japan has administered a total of 145.8 million shots, and more than 51% of its population is fully vaccinated, according to government figures. Its goal is to vaccinate at least 80% of its population by November. About 53.8% of Americans are fully vaccinated – a figure that looks soon to be surpassed, as well.

Japan’s vaccinated population is concentrated among its elderly, who were initially prioritized. Nearly 90% of those ages 65 or older have had both jabs. The country is still rushing to immunize younger people, who have been most affected in the most recent and worst-yet wave of coronavirus infections.

As shots in Japan are still being delivered at a brisk pace, it’s too early to tell how much hesitancy may affect the vaccination program in the country, which has a testy history with vaccines.

Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the vaccine rollout, is running to lead Japan’s ruling party and become its next prime minister. As Kono announced his official bid Friday, he said Japan would be among the top of the G7 countries in October in terms of vaccination rates. France currently leads the group with about 76% of its residents having received at least one dose.

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