Kato requests review of COVID classification

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Health, Labor, and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato

Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato has asked an advisory body to consider a review of the classification of COVID-19 under the Infectious Disease Control Law.

Based on the findings of the advisory body, the health ministry will consider changing the way COVID-19 is handled under the government’s classification system, treating the disease as equivalent to a lower-category illness.

In a meeting on Wednesday, Kato said, “I would like you to present an idea in an easy-to-understand manner on how to evaluate the virulence, infectivity and mutability of the novel coronavirus.”

Infectious diseases are classified from Category I to V under the law, depending on infectivity and the severity of symptoms. COVID-19 is listed as an infectious disease equivalent to Category II, the second most severe category, under which close contacts are asked to self-isolate.

The ministry is considering eventually classifying COVID-19 as a Category V disease, the same level as seasonal influenza.

A review of the classification was stated in supplementary provisions of proposed amendments to the law, which is expected to be enacted in the current Diet session.

The fact that the rate of deaths has been declining is also thought to be behind the push for a review.

According to government data, the mortality rate was 2.5% among infected people aged 60 and older during the fifth wave last summer. In Osaka Prefecture this summer during the seventh wave, the figure was 0.48%, about the same as the mortality rate of seasonal influenza, at 0.55%.

Treatment options have also increased. On Nov. 22, Xocova, a coronavirus drug developed by Shionogi & Co., was granted emergency approval.

At the Wednesday meeting, an expert said a risk assessment would be important as the nature of the disease is changing. “Now the issue is infections within hospitals and other facilities,” another expert said.

The head of the advisory panel Takaji Wakita, director general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, said, “We will work out our standpoint with the participation of a wide range of experts.”

If COVID-19 is classified in Category V, a wider range of medical institutions will likely be able to treat patients, helping to reduce the pressure at some facilities.

COVID-19 outpatient treatment is currently provided at about 41,000 fever clinics. A limited number of medical institutions provide inpatient care.

Currently, treatment and vaccination expenses are covered by public funds, but patients will be obliged to pay part of the expenses out of their own pockets if the infection is classified as Category V.

At a press conference Wednesday, Japan Medical Association Executive Board Member Satoshi Kamayachi said, “I agree with the need for a review, but the expenses should continue to be covered by public funds.”

The ministry is expected to make a decision by the end of the year at the earliest, taking into consideration factors such as the pathogenicity and infection status.