Cartoon canine pitches COVID vaccines to sceptical Japanese public

TOKYO (Reuters) – As Japan prepares for a COVID-19 vaccination campaign, a cheerful chatbot for cartoon dogs is doing its part to calm a notoriously vaccine-skeptical population and answer any questions.

Trust in vaccines in Japan is among the lowest in the world, a study by the Lancet Medical Journal showed. Only half of the population would like to take a COVID-19 vaccine, according to a poll by national broadcaster NHK last month.

It is among the last major economies to have launched their COVID-19 vaccination campaign, which is believed to be important in preparing for the Olympics and which is slated to open in less than 200 days after it was postponed in 2020 when the Coronavirus spread.

The government is expected this weekend to approve Pfizer Inc.’s COVID-19 vaccine and begin recording almost immediately, with frontline health workers being a priority.

While the anti-vaccine movement is relatively new in the United States, and largely fueled by fears of autism, the vaccine hesitation in Japan stems from vague safety concerns dating back decades.

Unproven reports of side effects halted active vaccination campaigns against mumps in the early 1990s and HPV in 2013.

Officials expect high levels of compliance with the government’s seal of approval across the board.

Given the waning support for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government, partly due to managing the pandemic, an enthusiastic reception of the shots remains uncertain.

“In Japan, I would say that trust in the government can be directly linked to trust in vaccines,” said Yuji Yamada, a doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

“It can go either way at this point,” said Yamada, one of ten young Japanese doctors who helped create the canine chatbot to learn from vaccination efforts overseas and counter rumors on social media.

Vaccine czar Taro Kono, who posted a video openly speaking about possible side effects of coronavirus vaccines, advertised the happy canine chatbot on Twitter last week.

The dog, a Shiba-inu known as Corowa-kun – from the Japanese words for “coronavirus” and “vaccine” – wears a white doctor’s coat and the app named after him provides automated answers to medical questions.

Reporting from Rocky Swift; Adaptation by Sayantani Ghosh, Robert Birsel