By Rocky Swift
TOKYO, March 23 (Reuters) - Moderna Inc is sponsoring sumo flags in its first such promotion in Japan, as the U.S. firm seeks to build on its new-found renown in COVID-19 vaccines and wrestle market share from compatriot Pfizer Inc .
The flags, known as kensho-hata, are held by banner bearers circling the sumo ring and have traditionally served as ads for everyday goods such as vitamins, teas, juices and rice.
Moderna debuted its banner on March 13 at the start of the national sport's two-week spring tournament - a simple white design with the company name in chunky, red, sumo-style script.
"I think vaccines are making us stronger and more durable as a society, and these two words are linked in my mind with sumo wrestlers," Rami Suzuki, Moderna's recently appointed representative director in Japan, told Reuters.
The promotion signals the company's growth aspirations in Japan, which has come to know Moderna through some 50 million doses of its mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine imported last year by local partner Takeda Pharmaceutical Co Ltd.
Those doses made up less than 20% of shots in Japan's initial double-shot inoculation push, with the bulk made up of the vaccine Pfizer developed with Germany's BioNTech SE . For the booster shot, however, the numbers are evening out, with Moderna accounting for about 42%.
Last week, the government said vaccines for fourth doses will be split nearly even between the two suppliers. It plans to secure 75 million doses from Pfizer and 70 million from Moderna.
For the fourth shot, which is under development and will be a combination of vaccines designed for the Delta and Omicron variants of the novel coronavirus, Moderna directly holds the rights in Japan, Suzuki said.
Takeda said it is in discussion with Moderna about distribution.
Moderna, founded in 2010 and based in Cambridge in the U.S. state of Massachusetts, did not have an office in Japan until October, and Suzuki, who previously held roles at pharmaceutical firms Janssen and Eisai Co Ltd, joined in November.
Going forward, the company plans to combine COVID-19 and influenza vaccines in one shot, with possible market introduction in 2023, Suzuki said. Later, the combined shot could include a third vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), she said.
The Japan push comes as Moderna increases its Asia presence with a plan to produce mRNA vaccines in Australia and create four subsidiaries in Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.
It also has a vaccine production deal with South Korean drugmaker Samsung BioLogics Co Ltd. (Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Miyoung Kim and Christopher Cushing)