Photo/Illutration A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine targeting the Omicron variant in September 2022 in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The central government has agreed in principle to continue to offer COVID-19 vaccines free of charge in and after April.

The vaccines have been fully subsidized, but the existing measure will expire at the end of March, prompting officials to discuss what to do after that date.

The next round of immunizations will also be conducted in fall and winter this year, the health ministry told its working group of experts on Feb. 8.

The working group agreed. The ministry will further discuss the plan and formally decide on the eligibility and how to cover the costs.

The working group discussed the plan based on scientific knowledge and other elements.

For example, they discussed a report that said the existing vaccines, which have follow-up data, were effective for at least six months in preventing patients from developing serious symptoms and becoming hospitalized, even when the Omicron variant was rampant.

The existing vaccines were also effective for more than 10 months in helping to keep patients from dying from the virus, according to the report.

Therefore, the working group members agreed it is reasonable that the next immunizations will be given in the fall and winter, a year after vaccines targeting the Omicron variant became available.

Until now, the central government has urged the public to get immunized every few months.

But the next interval between immunizations will be longer, and the purpose will be to focus more on preventing severe symptoms than on preventing infection.

Those at a high risk of severe symptoms, such as the elderly and those who have pre-existing conditions, as well as health care workers, may be able to receive the next vaccine before the fall and winter, depending on future infection trends and reports on the vaccines’ effectiveness.

However, the opportunity to get vaccinated should be made available to everyone, not just those at a higher risk, the working group said.

The vaccination schedule in and after fiscal 2024 will be made based on the vaccination schedule for fiscal 2023, in principle.

But the working group said it will continue to discuss the schedule based on newly available data.

Vaccinating children aged 11 and younger should also continue for some time in and after April, the working panel said.