Japan finally launched its vaccination program against the new coronavirus on February 17. The nationwide vaccination push is using vaccines manufactured by the American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
While the start of vaccinations is a piece of good news, that the vaccines are not of Japanese make is disappointing.
On top of the threats of the current COVID-19 pandemic, there are fears that other virus strains will provide an increasing source of threat in the future. Japan should have a sense of crisis about the current situation in which it is dependent on foreign countries for development and production of vaccines that are of vital importance to protecting the people’s health and lives.
The European Union, for example, has tightened rules on the exports of COVID-19 vaccines produced in the 27 EU countries, requiring authorization of shipments outside the bloc. As a result, Japan’s prospects for securing sufficient vaccines for its own use have become more uncertain.
The Japanese government should recognize that vaccines are an essential part of national security and ramp up its support for domestic vaccine development. These research and development (R&D) efforts require a huge amount of funds and the investment carries a high risk. It is only natural that few firms are willing to enter the sphere of vaccine R&D.
Japanese researchers have pointed out that Japan’s outlays in support of vaccine development are “less than one-tenth” of those in European countries, the United States and China. The government did incorporate R&D support for domestic vaccine development in the three supplementary budgets for fiscal 2020, which ends on March 31. However, the first supplemental budget appropriation for that purpose was only about ￥10 billion JPY ($93.3 million USD). The second supplemental appropriationー for facilities and equipment for the production of vaccines at home and abroadーcame in at ￥140 billion JPY ($1.31 billion USD), and the third, targeted at domestic vaccine development was for ￥120 billion JPY ($11.2 billion).
Admitting that a simple comparison cannot be easily drawn, the United States earmarked a budget of $10 billion USD (about ￥1 trillion JPY) in May last year for “Operation Warp Speed,” to speed up vaccine development. Government financial support in Europe and China are reported to be much the same. In addition, the United States also benefited from cumulative national defense initiatives related to the development of new vaccine technologies.
Japan’s Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry should do serious soul-searching about its failure to recognize the gravity of the matter, which has put Japan’s vaccine development efforts far behind those of global rivals in terms of both scale and speed.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in a February 17 session of the National Diet, “I am keenly aware of the need for the government to provide thorough support for domestic development of therapeutic drugs and vaccines.”
Isn’t it problematic that the top leader of the nation has to say this even though more than a year has passed since the outbreak of the pandemic? The government should have embarked on this course when the coronavirus first emerged, and at the latest when the pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization.
It is said that there are more than 200 kinds of new coronavirus vaccines under development worldwide. In Japan, such companies as biotech startup AnGes Inc. and Shionogi & Co. have embarked on vaccine development.
Although Japan has highly advanced technology, it has lagged behind other countries on this. The government must do its utmost to make up for the delay, even if it is gradual, through full-fledged support for R&D so that this country can provide vaccines and therapeutic drugs to people in Japan and around the world in the fight against the new coronavirus.