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Residents wait in line at a walk-in COVID-19 vaccination site, targeting people in the 16-39 age group, in the Shibuya district of Tokyo on Aug. 27, 2021.
Residents wait in line at a walk-in COVID-19 vaccination site, targeting people in the 16-39 age group, in the Shibuya district of Tokyo on Aug. 27, 2021. (Soichiro Koriyama/Bloomberg)

The U.S. is now last among the world’s most powerful democracies when it comes to COVID vaccinations, squandering an early lead and plentiful supplies, as it was surpassed by Japan’s steady progress in rolling out shots.

Japan, which started its mass vaccination program in April, has given a first dose to 63.6% of its population, according to government figures released Tuesday. The U.S. has administered at least one dose to 63.1% of its residents, the lowest among the Group of Seven nations.

The U.S. has seen immunization rates stall as the issue becomes politicized and anti-vaccine groups gain ground. It’s a critical issue for U.S. President Joe Biden, who is trying to staunch an outbreak that has dogged the country all summer. There were more than a quarter of a million infections reported on Monday alone.

Last week, Biden announced a vaccine mandate for all federal employees, health care workers and employees at large companies. It might not be enough. Andy Slavitt, former Biden White House senior adviser for COVID response, said in a tweet late Monday night that the U.S. will have the lowest vaccination level of all prosperous democracies by the end of September.

The vaccination rollout in Japan, which started off slow and late compared to other developed nations, has progressed quickly since early summer. Japan hit a million shots administered per day in mid-June, and has maintained the pace while battling a wave of infections driven by the more transmissible delta variant. The U.S., meanwhile, hasn’t kept up after a fast, early start.

Japan has administered a total of 145.8 million shots, and over 51% of its population is fully vaccinated, according to government figures. Its goal is to vaccinate at least 80% of its population by November. About 53.8% of Americans are fully vaccinated — a figure that looks soon to be surpassed as well.

Japan’s vaccinated population is concentrated among its elderly, who were initially prioritized. Near 90% of those 65 or older have had both jabs. The country is still rushing to inoculate younger people, who have been most affected in the most recent and worst-yet wave of coronavirus infections.

As shots in Japan are still being delivered at a brisk pace, it’s too early to tell how much hesitancy may affect the vaccination program in the country, which has a testy history with vaccines.

Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the vaccine rollout, is currently running to lead Japan’s ruling party and become its next prime minister. As Kono announced his official bid on Friday, he said Japan would be among the top of the G7 countries in October in terms of vaccination rates. France currently leads the group, with about 76% of its residents having received at least one dose.

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