About 500,000 people were administered vaccines from potentially contaminated batches
Japanese health minister Norihisa Tamura on Tuesday said that contamination found in Moderna Covid-19 vaccines in the southern prefecture of Okinawa might have been caused when needles were inserted into the vials, in a clarification days after over a million doses were suspended.
Mr Tamura pledged to continue the investigation and attempted to assure people that the foreign matter detected in vaccines posed no risk to the safety of people.
“Whatever the reason (for the foreign matter) we have heard that there is no safety or other issues,” Mr Tamura told reporters.
He said it was not uncommon for foreign material to enter a vial with other vaccines and believes that needles may have been inserted incorrectly into the vials, breaking off the rubber stopper.
In a massive blow to Japan’s vaccination drive amid a spiralling Covid crisis, the government has temporarily halted the vaccination rollout in two prefectures, Okinawa and Gunma, just days after use of around 1.63 million doses was suspended over contamination concerns.
Contamination of vials has been identified in seven prefectures so far, including Ibaraki, Saitama, Tokyo, Gifu, and Aichi, according to Kyodo news.
The health ministry said black substances were spotted in syringes and a vial, with pink substances found in another syringe.
Later, the ministry said it was investigating the death of two men, aged 38 and 30, who died within days of receiving a second dose of Moderna vaccine on 15 and 22 August. Both of them had a dose from one of the suspended lots, reported Reuters.
Both complained of fever after getting the second dose and died two days afterwards. There has been no evidence of contaminants in their shots, a health ministry official told reporters.
“Currently, no link has been confirmed between these deaths and the Moderna vaccine, but we believe it is important to carry out a formal probe to investigate the matter further,” Takeda Pharmaceutical, which is in charge of the sale and distribution of the Moderna vaccine in Japan, said in a statement released on Saturday.
So far, about 500,000 people have been identified who received shots from the three suspended batches of vaccines, Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the vaccine push, said on Friday.
As of 8 August, the people who died after receiving Pfizer covid shots mounted to 991 and deaths after Moderna shots were reported at 11. However, no link has been established between the deaths and shots, according to the health ministry.
The concerns around vaccines come as Japan faces its worst outbreak of Covid-19 so far, amid criticism of the government for holding the Olympics and Paralympic Games despite the surge.
The ongoing spike in cases has overwhelmed the healthcare system in several parts of the country, while Tokyo is scrambling to add more beds for Covid patients.
The country has vaccinated about 45 per cent of its population with two doses. Japan added 13,625 new infections on Monday, taking its total to 1.47 million.