(Adds quote from health minister)
By Rocky Swift
TOKYO, March 5 (Reuters) - Takeda Pharmaceutical said it had asked regulators to approve use of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine on Friday, which would add a third option to Japan's vaccination programme.
Japan began inoculations last month using Pfizer's vaccine, which was the first to be approved for domestic use but is imported from European factories and is in short supply.
Takeda, which is handling the Japanese approval process and imports of about 50 million Moderna doses, had earlier said approval could be given in May.
"Takeda commits to delivering Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate in Japan as soon as possible," Masayuki Imagawa, the head of its Japan vaccines business unit, said in a statement.
British drugmaker AstraZeneca applied for Japanese approval of its COVID-19 vaccine early last month, with a decision still pending.
Health Minister Norihisa Tamura told reporters that Japan would thoroughly test both the AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines.
"Once their safety is confirmed, we'll go into the approval process," he said, adding that the Moderna vaccine was essential for ensuring all Japanese are vaccinated.
Takeda is also handling the approval process and domestic production of about 250 million doses of Novavax's vaccine, which entered clinical trials in Japan last month.
Takeda plans to start distributing the Moderna vaccine in the first half of this year, with the Novavax shot expected in late 2021.
Japan has secured rights to at least 564 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from several overseas makers, the largest volume in Asia and more than enough for its population of 126 million.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has pledged to have enough doses by June, before the July 23 start of the Olympics in Tokyo, which was postponed from last year because of COVID-19. (Reporting by Rocky Swift and Elaine Lies; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Alexander Smith)