TOKYO—All across Japan, it seems that some people may be pulling the plugs on refrigerators holding anti-COVID vaccines.
While some of the incidents may be accidents, it appears that many of these reported cases were deliberate. And with thousands of doses already lost and the apparent sabotage showing no signs of slowing down, Japanese police are beginning to investigate why this is happening.
Some are pointing fingers at anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. In June, people began rallying around an abominable hashtag that translates to “pull the plug.” With COVID numbers rising rapidly in Tokyo before the Olympics—closing in on a thousand a day—and vaccine supplies running out, this interference may make the already troubled “pandemic games” an even bigger disaster.
Since May of this year, six Japanese prefectures have reported that the cords of refrigerators storing temperature-sensitive COVID-19 vaccines were pulled from their sockets. This resulted in the destruction of over 2,000 doses. In eight municipalities, medical administrators have found refrigerators unplugged, even in cases where they were fortified with tape to prevent accidental removal. Some were detached or relocated with no evidence of forced entry. In the majority of cases, the first worker to visit the site in the morning discovered the cooling units had been disconnected, suggesting that they were unplugged at night after the facility was closed, during a time when it is unlikely for someone to stumble over them.
The Daily Beast independently examined nine reported incidents of refrigerators for vaccines being “unplugged” in Osaka, Hyogo, Chiba, Kanagawa, Shimane, and Saitama. All the cases occurred in May and June with a total of 1,932 doses discarded and 119 compromised shots being administered due to temperatures outside the acceptable range.
Most of the facilities that recorded an unplugged refrigerator unit carried the Pfizer vaccine, with a few carrying the Moderna equivalent. Both vaccines need to be preserved at cold temperatures in order for them to be effective when administered. When their respective refrigerator-freezer storage units are turned off, the vaccines and their efficacy are quickly compromised.
Some cases likely fall under gross staff incompetence, like finding the vaccine refrigerator’s power cord bent and pressed against another power unit in Inagawa-cho, Hyogo prefecture. However, several municipalities were at a loss to explain what happened. A representative from the Neyagawa-city facility, which found its unit unplugged at noon on June 19, told a local outlet, “I verified that I couldn't pull the plug out by slightly hooking my foot on it.”
Most of these facilities have little or no security, which is not uncommon in low-crime Japan where many people leave their front doors unlocked. In fact, one former police detective writes, “there's no place easier to steal from or sneak into than a medical clinic in Japan.”
There is a fringe movement that seems to be trying to stop the vaccination rollout. It is led by anti-vaxxer and right-wing political candidate Masayuki Hiratsuka, who has campaigned on an anti-mask and COVID-denying platform well before he founded the Popular Sovereignty Party of Japan last year. His numerous Twitter and YouTube accounts have been terminated for posting false COVID-19 information. The platforms have also taken down sensational videos of him and his supporters boarding a train at Shibuya station, unmasked, in scheduled “cluster festivals.” Earlier this month, Hiratsuka, who is credited with starting the “pull-the-plug” campaign, posted an article reporting the loss of 158 vaccine doses due to an unplugged refrigerator unit in Oda city, writing: “Thanks! #pulltheplug.”
Hiratsuka was also present at the June 23, “No-Olympics” protest in Shinjuku where he made scientifically false and xenophobic statements calling COVID-19 nothing more than foreign propaganda, and declared that it was a problem brought to Japan by “gaijin,” a racial slur for foreigners. On Wednesday, Hiratsuka tweeted a cover of the Japanese 90’s ballad, "Saigo no Ame." Hiratsuka changed the title of the song to “Kimi (Puragu) Wo Kowashitai”—“I want to destroy you, plug.”
The public reaction to what appears to be willful destruction of the vaccines has been outrage, anger, and vicious humor on social media—especially to the “pull the plug” hashtag.
One Twitter user wrote, “Dear anti-vaxxers, though you can exercise your right to not get vaccinated, why do you then obstruct those who want the shot from getting it? It’s like someone who hates eggs going to a supermarket and going on an egg-cracking spree.” And in another response to Hiratsuka’s tweets, one user wrote, “Instead of ‘pulling the plug’ why don’t you just pull on your tiny little dick?”
Police in Japan are taking these incidents seriously and are already investigating. Courtroom attorney Toshiya Hamakado wrote on a popular legal news website that pulling the plug isn’t just a harmful prank—it’s a crime. “By intentionally yanking out the cord, you’re obstructing the vaccination process, which violates article 233 of Japan’s criminal code, which forbids the fraudulent obstruction of business.” Such acts carry a penalty of up to three years in prison and a fine of up to about $5,000. The act of pulling the plug also amounts to the destruction of property, which can be punished with hard labor up to three years or a hefty fine.
Whether promulgating a hashtag saying “pull the plug” amounts to masterminding a crime is up for debate. The Japanese police take acts like this very seriously and have previously arrested several men who shouted, “I am the coronavirus” in bars and other places for forcible obstruction of business.
Japan’s anti-vaxxism is still a fringe movement, but like any fringe movement, it may become a real force if not checked. The majority of Japanese people who are not getting vaccinated are not fanatics, but simply risk-avoidant. According to a poll by Jiji Medical News, 3 out of 4 people hesitating to get vaccinated do so out of fear of the side-effects of the vaccine, not because they don’t think it works or is actually harmful.
According to the World Health Organization, less than 8 percent of the Japanese population is fully vaccinated, as Japan plunges forward into holding the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which many say is likely to become a super-spreader event. Already, several athletes who were supposed to have been vaccinated before arriving have turned out to be infected, and even infected others with variants still uncommon in Japan. It’s almost certain that the IOC and the Japanese government won’t pull the plug on the Olympics.
Now, citizens can only hope that authorities can pull the plug on apparent efforts to sabotage an already painfully slow immunization campaign.