Japan formally approves first vaccine

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Japan has formally approved its first COVID-19 vaccine and said it would start nationwide inoculations within days.

Japan's health ministry said on Sunday it had approved the vaccine co-developed and supplied by Pfizer Inc.

The announcement comes after a government panel on Friday confirmed that final results of clinical testing done in Japan showed that the vaccine had an efficacy similar to what overseas tests showed.

Many countries began vaccinating their citizens late last year, and Pfizer's vaccine has been used elsewhere since December.

Under the current plan, about 20,000 frontline medical workers in hospitals in Japan will get their first shots beginning around Wednesday.

About 3.7 million other medical workers will be next, followed by elderly people, who are expected to get their shots in April. By June, it's expected that all others will be eligible.

Health ministry official Yuta Yamashita said inoculations can start as soon as a ministry panel on vaccination logistics gives the go-ahead.

The approval was granted in a special fast-track process for emergency use. It took two months compared to the usual one year in a country known for cautious and slow-moving approval processes.

Still, the rollout in Japan is months behind many other countries because the government had asked for clinical testing domestically in addition to the multinational tests Pfizer conducted on more than 40,000 people from July to November. Many countries accepted Pfizer's results and moved ahead.

Vaccines are considered key to holding the delayed Tokyo Olympics this summer.

Japan is expected to receive 144 million doses from Pfizer, 120 million from AstraZeneca and about 50 million from Moderna before the end of this year, enough to cover its population.