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Japan-developed COVID-19 vaccines might be available for use in next few months

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A doctor speaks to a subject of a clinical trial at Shinagawa Strings Clinic in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on Saturday.

The prospect of Japan using domestically developed COVID-19 vaccines is closer to being realized.

Japan has had to rely on products developed by foreign entities throughout the vaccination rollout, but a few domestic pharmaceutical companies have advanced their own vaccines to the clinical trial stage, after lagging behind foreign firms in development and procurement.

With the second dose of the vaccine series given to about 80% of the population in Japan, the focus now is on administering booster shots.

By the end of April, the government plans to finish distributing more doses than the number of people eligible for third-round shots. For a possible fourth dose, it has already secured sufficient quantities through contracts with U.S. companies Pfizer Inc. and Moderna, Inc.

Nevertheless, Osaka-based Shionogi & Co. said that it is worthwhile to continue development from a security perspective.

Clinical testing for a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Shionogi is being conducted at Shinagawa Strings Clinic in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

On Saturday, a 47-year-old clinical test subject underwent a blood test after having a medical examination. The blood test was to compare the amount of neutralizing antibodies to that of inoculation with the vaccine developed by Britain’s AstraZeneca PLC. The antibodies play a role in preventing the onset of COVID-19 and lessening the severity of symptoms.

“I wanted to help in the development of a Japanese product,” the man said.

“Many people want to receive a shot with Japanese products because they feel safer,” said Dr. Naoko Sanno, the director of the clinic.

The development of domestic vaccines has lagged far behind that of foreign countries. Since the latter half of the 1980s, the central government has repeatedly lost lawsuits over adverse reactions to vaccinations and damage caused by pharmaceuticals.

Domestic pharmaceutical companies thus became reluctant to develop vaccines due to their deteriorated image.

On the contrary, the U.S. government reacted quickly to the spread of the novel coronavirus and invested $18 billion (about ¥2 trillion) to support private sector vaccine development, achieving the early practical use of COVID-19 vaccines.

“In normal times, the government needs to invest in infectious disease control and establish a system so that large-scale clinical testing can be conducted in an emergency,” Shionogi President and CEO Isao Teshirogi said.

Shionogi is leading in the development of domestically produced vaccines. Applying a subsidiary’s influenza vaccine technology, the company’s vaccine uses a protein made from a genetically modified virus.

On March 4, Shionogi announced that it confirmed its vaccine has comparable efficacy as a booster as that of Pfizer. The initial target was to begin supplying the product as early as the end of March, but at present it is likely to be May or later.

The company is even looking to supply Vietnam among other countries, and seeks to gain development experience in preparation for the next pandemic.

Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma Corp. and Daiichi Sankyo Co. are also conducting clinical trials, with Mitsubishi Tanabe aiming to file for approval of its COVID-19 vaccine around July to September.