Japan gives $800M to UN-backed COVID-19 vaccine program

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s prime minister announced Wednesday an additional $800 million contribution to the U.N.-backed initiative to provide COVID-19 vaccines to poor countries, a four-fold increase of Japanese funding for the COVAX program.

The pledge by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga comes as his government attempts to accelerate vaccinations in Japan, one of the world’s least inoculated countries, only about 50 days before it hosts the Olympics amid a continuing surge in infections.

He spoke as Japan co-sponsored a fundraising event for COVAX with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which helps run the program. The program managers are seeking about $2 billion more to reach a target of $8.3 billion for its effort to fund free vaccines for low- and middle-income countries around the world.

“Now is the time for us to act,” Suga said, leading a parade of world and humanitarian leaders who announced pledges and commitments on Wednesday. He said the additional $800 million will bring Japan’s contribution to $1 billion, second to the $2.5 billion pledged by the United States.

Suga also announced plans to provide 30 million doses of a vaccine manufactured under license in Japan to other countries and regions in need. He did not specify the maker or recipients.

Officials have said Japan is considering providing the AstraZeneca vaccine to Taiwan as the island faces a resurgence of infections.

Japan has approved three foreign-developed vaccines and is currently using ones from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. It has no immediate plans to use the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is easier to store and transport than the other two vaccines, which require special freezers, officials said.

Suga also introduced a new vaccine strategy adopted Tuesday and vowed to develop Japan’s own vaccines and provide them globally and to improve the clinical testing environment to prepare for future pandemics.

Under the long-term strategy, Japan will aim for the speedy development and rollout of new vaccines. In addition to a lack of locally developed vaccines, Japan’s lengthy drug approval process was criticized as a major obstacle that delayed vaccinations during the pandemic.

The summit was also attended by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and philanthropist Bill Gates.

Globally, more than 3.5 million people are confirmed to have died from the coronavirus. The U.S. has seen the largest confirmed loss of life from COVID-19, at more than 594,000 people.