Japan will offer two more booster shots to the elderly and other people at high risk of serious illness from the novel coronavirus by the end of this year, health ministry officials said Wednesday.

People aged 65 years or older, those with underlying medical conditions and health care professionals will have a chance to get inoculated from May to August, as well as from September to December. Other age groups eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations can also get a shot during the four months through December.

The plan was approved at a meeting of a panel of experts under the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare on Wednesday.

The fresh inoculation drive comes despite the government's decision to downgrade the legal status of COVID-19 to the same category as common infectious diseases like seasonal flu on May 8.

"As the effects of vaccinations could diminish in six months to one year, it is good to provide an opportunity for vaccination around spring and summer. With the inoculation system installed through much of the year, (authorities) can deal flexibly according to the infection status of the pandemic," one of the panel members said.

The vaccination to be provided from May will be a shot targeting the Omicron variant. The type of vaccine to be administered during the September-December period is yet to be decided.

The vaccines will be free of charge, as the government will extend by one year its special measure enabling free coronavirus vaccine shots. It was set to expire at the end of March.

The latest decision came after a health ministry panel agreed earlier this month that the next round of vaccinations should start in the fall or winter of 2023 at the latest, with the elderly and others at high risk the primary target before vaccinations expand to others.

In Japan, the administration of coronavirus vaccines was launched in February 2021, starting with health care professionals, and later expanded to the general public. The government also began providing Omicron-customized shots from fall last year.

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