Create long-term support system to accelerate practical use of Japan-made vaccines

Though the development of vaccines against infectious diseases is a national security matter, sufficient efforts have not been made. The same mistake must not be repeated.

The government has drawn up a national strategy to boost the domestic development and production capacity of vaccines, reflecting its remorse for the delay in securing COVID-19 vaccines. According to the strategy, the government plans to support clinical trials conducted by pharmaceutical companies and establish manufacturing bases.

In Japan, the full-scale inoculation rollout of the vaccines manufactured by U.S. pharmaceutical companies has finally begun. The main goal is to vaccinate across the board the people who need it, but it does not necessarily mean the demand for doses will cease once this is achieved.

It is possible that COVID-19 inoculations might become necessary every year from this year forward. A new variant of the novel coronavirus that is resistant to existing vaccines could emerge. To respond to such situations promptly, it is important to establish a system that enables domestic vaccine production at the spur of the moment.

Currently, several pharmaceutical companies in Japan, including Shionogi & Co. and Daiichi Sankyo Co., are developing their proprietary COVID-19 vaccines. However, under the current circumstances in which U.S. companies’ vaccines are becoming more widely used, it is difficult to secure participants for clinical trials to confirm efficacy. Thus, domestically developed vaccines have yet to be put to practical use.

The United States has a system that allows the use of vaccines as urgent measures even during clinical trials if it is necessary to contain the spread of infectious diseases quickly. Japan should consider introducing similar procedures.

To prepare for a possible outbreak of new infectious diseases in the future, the government should not neglect long-term measures, including providing public assistance.

The U.S. government reportedly spent $18 billion (about ¥2 trillion) to achieve the practical use of the vaccines under its initiative during the pandemic. In normal times, research funds have been donated to universities and companies based on the scenario that bioterrorism among other events might occur, and such actions have helped realize the prompt development of vaccines.

In Japan on the other hand, the government and companies had been reluctant to develop vaccines, partly because in the past side effects had become societal problems in some cases. About 10 years ago, a panel of experts for the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry proposed that Japan strengthen its development of vaccines against a new strain of influenza, but the proposal was left largely unaddressed.

The government said it will focus its budget on new vaccine research that is expected to produce results. In the past, promising developments had to be suspended due to a lack of funds. It is hoped that the government will take appropriate measures so that some vaccines will be put into practical use.

If it is difficult for Japan to develop vaccines on its own, it should consider joint development with other countries, rather than focusing on producing purely Japanese vaccines.

The importance of vaccines tends to be forgotten once the spread of an infectious disease is brought under control. It is essential for the government to steadily implement its strategy this time.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on June 7, 2021.