Utilize Lessons Learned from Slow Start in Domestic COVID Vaccine Development for Future

A COVID-19 vaccine developed by a domestic company has been approved by the government for the first time. Japan must take the lessons learned from its slow start and apply them to future vaccine development, including measures to deal with new variants.

The approved vaccine, which was developed by Daiichi Sankyo Co., is a type that uses messenger RNA (mRNA), a genetic substance. The vaccine targets conventional strains of the virus that were prevalent in the early stage of the pandemic.

The novel coronavirus has repeatedly mutated, and the omicron XBB subvariant is now the mainstream. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry plans to import an overseas vaccine that targets this subvariant, and will begin new vaccinations for all generations in September.

There is now no demand for vaccines that target conventional variants, and Daiichi Sankyo does not plan to supply the vaccine it developed. The drugmaker said it has started development of a vaccine that targets XBB and aims to supply it by the end of the year. Daiichi Sankyo must utilize the latest approval as a step to boost the development process.

Previously, SARS and MERS were prevalent around the world, but fortunately did not spread in Japan.

As a result, there was no heightened awareness of the danger of infectious diseases, and government support for companies and universities engaged in vaccine research and development remained inadequate.

Therefore, Japan fell behind in developing a vaccine and was unable to promptly prepare its own vaccine for the COVID-19 pandemic. The country was forced to rely on imports made in the United States, and inoculations began later than in the United States and Europe.

In contrast, the United States had been investing huge sums of money into infectious disease research as a national strategy even before the pandemic. As a result, the United States was able to put vaccines to practical use within a year of the start of the pandemic.

Infectious diseases are a threat that can strike at any time. The series of events during the pandemic may indicate the importance of being prepared in normal times.

Vaccine development should not be left to the private sector, considering the risk of not knowing when it will be profitable after development costs are invested. It is necessary for the government to take the lead in providing financial support and strengthening development capabilities.

The government has established the Strategic Center of Biomedical Advanced Vaccine Research and Development for Preparedness and Response (SCARDA) as a command center for vaccine development. A system must be put in place to accurately evaluate promising research and technologies from universities and companies, and ensure their efforts are not overlooked.

It takes time to strengthen vaccine development capabilities, and it is difficult to make up for delays all at once. That is why it is important to develop human resources and invigorate research efforts from a long-term perspective.

Some people are concerned about COVID-19 vaccines because there have been cases of strong adverse reactions and deaths after vaccination. Improving safety is also a future challenge.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 13, 2023)