Japan taps Kono as vaccine minister as approval nears for Pfizer


The outspoken reformer named by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to lead a massive vaccine rollout pledged to work quickly on inoculations as the country nears approval of Pfizer Inc.’s shot for the coronavirus.

Taro Kono (picture), a former defense minister, told a news conference Tuesday he will do everything he can to get as many people as possible inoculated when Japan looks to start vaccinations in late February. Kono is facing a public more skeptical of vaccines than in many nations and is charged with leading a campaign set to be a defining moment  for Suga, whose support has fallen hard due to what many see as mistakes in virus management.

Kono, named to the vaccine post late Monday, has been seen as a potential rival to Suga as premier. When Suga became prime minister in September, he named Kono to an administrative reform post in his cabinet rather than one of the traditional high-profile jobs, initially raising suspicions he was trying to sideline a potential rival.

Kono said on a BS-TBS TV show before the news conference that he would be responsible for coordinating among various ministries and 1,700 local authorities that will ultimately administer the doses. He suggested he could enlist the help of the private logistics sector, and didn’t deny he might seek to involve the Self-Defense Forces or volunteers.

Japan will be one of the slowest leading economies to start inoculations and has taken a more cautious approach than the likes of the U.S. and the U.K., which have already begun vaccinations. But Japan has also had vastly fewer deaths from Covid-19 than many other developed nations, and had about the same number of recorded infections in the past year than the U.S. has tallied on certain days in January.

Concern is also growing over the new variant first identified in the U.K., with Japan’s Health Ministry saying Tuesday community transmission of the strain may now be ongoing in the country after finding the mutation for the first time among people with no recent travel history.

Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said last week he hoped Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine would be approved in mid-February, making it the first in the country. Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. plans to start local clinical trials of Novavax Inc.’s candidate on Feb. 20, according to a regulatory filing, while the Japanese drugmaker is also set to start trials for Moderna Inc.’s shot this week.

Logistical challenges have bedeviled Japan’s government throughout the pandemic. It took months to fully distribute a one-time cash handout meant to tide households over last spring, while the distribution of two face masks to all households met with widespread derision due to the time and money involved. Trouble-free rollouts of such programs in Asian neighbors such as South Korea and Singapore have clouded the government’s response.

The reform drive has become one of Suga’s signature issues, with Kono helping to lead a high-profile effort to scrap traditions such as stamping paper documents and widespread use of fax machines to boost efficiency in the public sector.

As Suga’s popularity has slumped, Kono was voted the most suitable person to be the next prime minister in a Mainichi poll on Jan. 16. Kono has in the past publicly stated his desire to hold the top job.