Crisis Management Agency: Comprehensively Review Preparedness for Infectious Disease Outbreaks

No matter how much the central government called for efforts, there were not enough hospital beds for COVID-19 patients and it took time for a testing system to be put in place. In the event of another infectious disease outbreak, the command post must play a role to avoid repeating mistakes made amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Cabinet Agency for Infectious Disease Crisis Management has been launched as a new organization to handle measures against infectious diseases in a comprehensive manner.

The agency was established by reorganizing the Cabinet Secretariat’s office for COVID-19 control. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shunichi Kuryu was appointed as the head of the agency. The agency’s 38-person team during normal conditions will rise to 300 in the event of an emergency.

The agency intends to review the government’s action plan for measures against infectious diseases. It will be the first revision of the action plan since 2017.

When the action plan is reviewed, it will be important to identify issues faced amid the coronavirus pandemic and bolster preparations for the next crisis. The hope is that relevant ministries and agencies will compile a detailed list of measures that need to be strengthened.

First, it is vital for the central government to cooperate with research institutes and medical device manufacturers so that test kits can be developed immediately in the event of an outbreak of an infectious disease. A system must also be in place to facilitate the domestic development of vaccines.

In the event of an outbreak, it is the role of prefectural governments to take concrete measures such as asking people to exercise restraint, including shortening business hours, and securing hospital beds for infected patients. The central government is responsible for “general coordination” with local governments and various related organizations.

However, based on such a division of roles, if the central government leaves countermeasures entirely to local governments and the virus spreads as a result, the entire country could be plunged into a critical situation.

It is essential for the agency to cooperate with local governments and other entities and remain watchful to ensure that measures against infectious diseases are not taken too late.

In addition to the new agency, the central government plans to establish in fiscal 2025 or later a national institute for health crisis control, which will be an organization of experts in charge of measures against infectious diseases. It intends to integrate the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) and other related entities to form an organization that will have both basic research and medical treatment functions.

The NIID has been responsible for genetic research on new variants and epidemiological surveys of patients amid the coronavirus pandemic, but it cannot be said that their findings were fully reflected in countermeasures. It is hoped that the new institute will actively propose measures.

Following an outbreak of a new type of influenza in 2009, experts called for the expansion of the PCR testing system and the stockpiling of medical equipment, but their recommendations were not included in the government’s measures against infectious diseases.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, rifts emerged in many cases between scientists who emphasized containment of the infectious disease and politicians who were concerned about the impact on economic and social activities.

How to reflect the opinions of scientists concretely in measures is a difficult issue. It is necessary for the central government and experts to communicate with each other on a regular basis.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 2, 2023)