The Japanese health minister said Sunday his ministry could approve a second COVID-19 vaccine as early as May, as the government sees inoculation as crucial to curbing infections.

"There is the possibility of giving pharmaceutical approval as early as May or June," Norihisa Tamura, minister of health, labor and welfare, said on a TV program.

U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc.'s vaccine was the first to be approved for use in Japan in February. Britain's AstraZeneca Plc filed an application for its coronavirus vaccine in early February and Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. also applied for approval of U.S. biotechnology company Moderna Inc.'s vaccine last Friday.

Japan has signed agreements with the three vaccine makers for a total of 314 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, enough to inoculate 157 million people. The country's population is around 126 million.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has repeatedly said vaccinations are a decisive step to bring the pandemic under control as early as possible.

Tamura said the government would be ready to consider an application by Johnson & Johnson for its single-dose vaccine if one is filed. But it has yet to decide on whether to purchase the vaccine as it is still a matter for discussion, he said.