Accelerate Efforts to Support Japan’s Development of COVID-19 Vaccines

The government’s reliance on foreign imports of vaccines, which are the key to fighting infectious diseases, is not encouraging. To ensure a stable supply, Japan’s vaccine development strategy should be drastically reviewed.

The government has included funds to support the domestic development of vaccines for the novel coronavirus in a supplementary budget for fiscal 2020. The government said it intends to accelerate efforts to put domestic vaccines to practical use by providing Japanese companies with subsidies for the cost of large-scale clinical trials that examine the effectiveness of the vaccines and their side effects, among other assistance.

Currently, companies such as Shionogi & Co. and Daiichi Sankyo Co. are working on the development of domestic vaccines. It is hoped that the government will extend effective support to these companies while listening to their opinions.

Countries around the world are scrambling to secure COVID-19 vaccines amid a global shortage. Inoculations with vaccines developed by U.S. pharmaceutical maker Pfizer Inc. have started in Japan. However, the schedule for the nation’s vaccine program remains unclear as the arrival of future vaccines is not yet in sight.

Unforeseen events such as the emergence of variants could occur, and demand for COVID-19 vaccines may also continue next year and beyond. If countries do not have their own vaccine production systems, it will be difficult to deal with such situations. From the viewpoint of national crisis management, it is important to enhance the ability to develop vaccines.

Japan does not have a major government support framework for vaccine production, and it had been left up to companies to take the initiative. The reality was that from a business standpoint, companies had been reluctant to deal with the kind of infectious diseases that rarely break out.

The nation saw a period in which the development of new vaccines stalled as serious side effects became a social problem. The government is urged to proceed with promoting vaccine development while gaining public understanding by providing accurate information.

Surprisingly, countries such as the United States and Britain put COVID-19 vaccines to practical use in less than a year. It can be said that this is the result of the accumulation of daily efforts in research and development.

In the United States, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority mainly supports the development of drugs and vaccines in preparation for new infectious diseases such as the novel coronavirus, as well as nuclear, biological and chemical terrorist attacks from the viewpoint of security.

In Japan, it is also necessary for the government to take the initiative in cultivating technological ability to develop vaccines even in normal times and establish a system to promptly respond to emergencies such as epidemics.

If Japan can develop promising technologies as soon as possible and participate in international clinical trials, it could cut development costs and shorten the time for putting domestic vaccines to practical use.

The government has contributed funding to fight infectious diseases in developing countries. The development of domestic vaccines will also be useful as part of assistance for these countries.

Research on new drugs and therapies for COVID-19 is underway in Japan. Along with vaccines, it is hoped that efforts to develop effective drugs will also be accelerated.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 26, 2021.