Japan only recently adopted guidelines for accepting blood donations from those who have received COVID-19 vaccines. The guidelines are intended to give donors time to get over any side effects from the vaccine. Without providing that context, a social media post misleadingly claims Japan is “refusing” blood donations from vaccinated people.
Japan has reported more than 651,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 11,000 deaths, and is in the midst of a fourth wave of infections. Yet it lags far behind many other nations in vaccinating its population against the novel coronavirus.
With just 2% of the population fully inoculated – compared to more than 35% in the U.S. – Japan “is on a par with Myanmar – a failed state,” Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan campus, told us in an email.
Late to the game while waiting for a homegrown vaccine that did not materialize, Japan has approved only one vaccine — the Pfizer/BioNTech shot — for the country and has been slow getting it into people’s arms.
“A labyrinthine approval process hasn’t helped,” William Pesek, a Tokyo resident and author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades,” wrote in the Washington Post. “Tradition-bound Tokyo has long required pharmaceutical companies to do soup-to-nuts clinical trials locally, rather than incorporating studies and data done elsewhere.”
He also noted the relatively low death rate in a nation of 126 million has reduced a sense of urgency, and a “lively” anti-vaccine movement is spreading skepticism in Japan. There have been about 8.75 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people in Japan compared with nearly 178 per 100,000 in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
In the midst of this, a post on Facebook has started spreading in the U.S., misleadingly claiming, “JAPAN refuses blood donations from any who received shot/s! Wow… What’s that tell you?!”
But Japan has not been refusing to accept blood donations from vaccinated individuals; it simply put them on hold while the government drew up donor guidelines.
Hitoshi Hatta, a spokesman for the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., told FactCheck.org in an email on May 7 that the Health Ministry recently adopted guidelines calling for “people not to donate blood within (only) 48 hours after vaccination for Covid-19.”
He said in a telephone interview that the delay has nothing to do with concerns about the vaccine’s safety, but is intended to give would-be donors time to get over any possible side effects from the vaccine. Side effects can include dizziness, fever and body aches, and would preclude them from giving blood.
The Japanese Red Cross Society posted the government recommendations on April 28, but said it would not put them into effect until May 14.
The guidelines come as Japan is also dealing with a blood shortage due to a drop in donations in the face of pandemic shutdowns.
What impact the slow rollout of the vaccine will have for the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo in July is not yet clear. But Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, facing another wave of COVID-19 infections in the country, on May 7 extended the state of emergency in Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures until May 31 and expanded it to Aichi and Fukuoka prefectures.
One thing working in favor of the Olympics going ahead is that, except for athletes and participants, no foreigners can enter the country to attend.
Kingston, of Temple’s Japan campus, told FactCheck.org that the lagging rollout of the vaccine and the delay in the blood donation guidelines are the government’s making.
“It’s a bureaucratic bottleneck driven by fear that something might go wrong, so best to delay and delay,” he said.
Kingston said Japan also has not forgotten a scandal that enraged the nation in the 1980s, after it became known that some government officials allowed continued use of blood contaminated with the HIV virus after it had been established that heat treatments would have prevented the spread of the infection through donated blood. Takeshi Abe, who had led the Health Ministry’s AIDS research team at the time, was charged with attempted murder in 1996 but was acquitted in 2001.
In the U.S., there is no wait time, or deferral as it is known, to donate blood under Food and Drug Administration guidelines for those who have received a COVID-19 vaccine. But the FDA, anticipating the development of live attenuated vaccines — which use a weakened form of the virus to provide protection — has already suggested a two-week deferral for anyone inoculated with any of those vaccines.
According to the World Health Organization, live attenuated COVID-19 vaccines are in pre-clinical development at the University of North Carolina.
Dr. Julie Katz Karp, director of transfusion medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, said the FDA decided early on that there would be no deferral for blood donations for those inoculated with the three authorized vaccines now in use in the U.S.
“They recognized that the risk to the recipient was essentially – as far as we could tell from a scientific perspective – nothing,” she said.
Karp said the medical directors of blood banks still have it within their own power to require vaccine recipients to delay giving blood if they see fit.
She said deferral periods have two key purposes. One is to protect the donor, and the other to ensure the recipient gets a safe blood product that has “good potency, good purity and good efficacy.”
For example, donors with low hemoglobin counts will get deferrals in the interest of both themselves and a possible recipient, while those with low blood pressure will have to wait for their own safety until they can give blood.
She said deferral periods “vary widely” around the world and are judgments made by local officials based on reasons ranging from medical to cultural to even storage capacity. She said the U.S., where one can give blood every 56 days, tends to be more aggressive, while others are more conservative. For example, in Japan a man can only give blood three times a year, while for women it is twice a year.
And in terms of vaccine-related deferrals, India only recently has reduced its period from 28 days to two weeks at the request of blood banks.
The demand for blood in the U.S. dipped during the pandemic as hospitals put off elective surgeries and accidents ebbed, Karp said, but it is nearing pre-pandemic levels and with it, the need for more donations.
Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over our editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.
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