Tracking Vaccination Numbers in Japan

The website of the Prime Minister’s Office in Japan (Kantei) is providing a daily update of vaccination progress in two categories: medical staff (doctors and nurses) and senior residents (age 65 and above).

To track these vaccinations, the government has issued tablet computers running software known as the Vaccine Recording System (ワクチン接種記録システム, VRS). It was developed by Milabo, a small privately held company founded in 2013. It describes itself as:

A start-up that provides child-rearing support services such as DX, immunization, health checkup, checkup scheduler, electronic maternal and child notebook, health center reservation system, mainly for local governments.

It had previously worked with the cabinet secretariat on the “MyNumber” personal ID system that assigns a personal identification number to every resident of the country. The budget for developing VRS was 385 million yen (about US$3.5 million).

The software in the tablets is used to scan bar codes and forms when people receive their vaccine doses. Theoretically this should allow the government to accurately track the progress being made.

However, the numbers published on the website keep changing even after they are published. For example, on Monday, May 17 the Kantei website listed a total of 69,526 doses (first and second doses) given to seniors on Monday, May 10 and 57,172 on Saturday, May 15. Two days later, on Wednesday, May 19 the numbers for those two days had been revised to 71,543 and 83,311 doses, respectively. That is an increase of 2.9 percent and 45.7 percent several days after publication.

What this suggests is that the software does not track the numbers and automatically uploads them to a government server at the end of the day (say, via a mobile data connection with a SIM card). Instead, there must be manual steps involved. Comparing the results published two days apart and looking back across 4 weeks worth of data, it turns out that daily totals still change after a whole month, for example by 46 doses from 2,533 to 2,579 for Wednesday, April 14 between May 17 and 19. I mean, really?

In rare cases the numbers have also decreased by 2 or 3 doses from the previously reported totals, which would be hard to explain by late reporting: the numbers should go up but not down! This could be cases were mistakes were made that made vaccination unreliable and so the cases were purged from the total.

The good news is that currently about 77 percent of healthcare workers have received at least one dose while 42 percent have received both doses. At the current pace of second doses it should take less than two weeks for all remaining healthcare workers to have received their first shots and three weeks after that anyone willing to get the first shot will have had their second shot too. For some strange reason, the healthcare worker counts seem unaffected by the late count updates and I don’t understand why.

One thing to look forward to is for the Moderna vaccine (mRNA-1273) to receive approval in Japan at the end end of this week. It is very similar to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in terms of safety and efficacy. It has already been imported into Japan since the end of last month.

There are about 7 times more senior citizens than there are health care workers, so the number will have to increase much more. There should be enough vaccine by the end of June/early July to vaccinate about 36 million of them, but will the local governments be able to keep up with setting up vaccination sites? Each prefecture and city has been left to figure it out on its own. There is no national vaccination reservation system, each local government was left to build its own system. If the bottleneck is not vaccine supplies but organisation then the Moderna vaccine will not help all that much.

If Japan manages to vaccinate all its doctors and nurses by early June and most of its people aged 65 and above by the end of July, that still leaves about 70 million people to be vaccinated after that, with no date yet when this is expected to start and how long it is expected to take. It looks like a long road ahead to herd immunity and for life to return to normal.

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