Photo/Illutration A vaccination operation training session held in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Jan. 27 (Hikaru Uchida)

A crucial challenge for the Japanese government right now is to establish a reliable and effective system to roll out a nationwide vaccination program to overcome the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Municipal governments will be responsible for mobilizing health care workers, preparing vaccination sites and other operational tasks. For its part, the central government needs to support local administrations by providing appropriate instructions, advice and information.

The health ministry is currently reviewing and evaluating data about the coronavirus vaccine developed by U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc., which provided the ministry with the relevant details at the end of last year in the first application for approval of a COVID-19 vaccine to be used in Japan.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged in the Diet that the government will publish related information and records of discussions among experts examining the vaccine data as soon as possible. He should do so in a timely manner to ensure transparency and reliability of the approval process.

The government plans to roll out a nationwide vaccination program in late February, starting with health care workers. Next on the list are 36 million or so people aged 65 or older.

But a raft of problems remain to be sorted out.

Pfizer’s vaccine, co-manufactured with German company BioNTech, has to be stored at extremely low temperatures. That means handling vials of the vaccine after they are taken out of the freezer and opened requires much greater care than when using ordinary influenza vaccines.

The government’s vaccination program involves not only mass vaccination in school gyms and other facilities but also dispatching vehicles to care facilities for the elderly. The central government needs to prepare support plans suitable for different circumstances.

Notices and instructions the central government issues to local administrations have often been criticized for being too many in number and hard to understand. Such documents should be written in a concise and easy-to-understand manner so as to communicate key points effectively.

The government’s most important task, however, is to swiftly provide municipal authorities with accurate information about the number of doses they will receive and when. Without that information, local authorities will be clueless in their efforts to develop vaccination plans. Miscommunication could lead to time and energy wasted on preparations.

Reports have surfaced about delays in vaccine supplies in Europe and the United States, where vaccinations started earlier.

Since this health crisis is without precedent in the world, a degree of uncertainty is inevitable. Still, the government has a responsibility to minimize uncertainty to ensure the vaccination program will proceed as smoothly as possible.

Suga has put administrative reform minister Taro Kono in charge of the mission of vaccinating the population against COVID-19. Since the program involves multiple ministries and agencies, Kono was probably chosen because of his ability to act without being shackled by the norms prevalent in Kasumigaseki, the citadel of bureaucracy, and Nagatacho, the political power center.

But the most important leadership quality required to oversee the program is the ability to heed the voices of front-line workers and understand and coordinate the needs and interests of the various parties involved.

As soon as he assumed responsibility, Kono proposed using the “My Number” identification system to keep track of individual vaccination records. But the health ministry has already started building up a separate system to keep tabs on vaccine distribution and information. Kono’s proposal bewildered many local governments.

Kono should take maximum care not to place an excessive burden on people and organizations involved in operating the program or cause unnecessary confusion.

Many Japanese are reluctant to receive the newly developed vaccine. It is, therefore, vital for the central government to offer information about the situation in other countries as well as expert knowledge and data to the public in an accurate and accessible manner.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 30