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Editorial: Learning from past mistakes vital to new vaccine strategy

  • June 8, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 3:31 p.m.
  • English Press

The government has finally drawn up a long-term strategy to enhance the nation’s ability to develop and produce vaccines.

 

Even when the novel coronavirus crisis finally abates, society will continue to face the risk of new pandemics, which pose one of the gravest threats to the human race.

 

With renewed awareness of this grim reality, the government must take steps to lay a solid foundation for the development, production and administration of vaccines.

 

While vaccines to combat COVID-19 were developed quickly in the United States and Europe, Japan lagged in the endeavor.

 

In the aftermath of the 2009 novel influenza (H1N1) pandemic, health experts made impassioned calls for the development of an effective vaccine strategy. But the government failed to heed their warnings seriously, sealing Japan’s inability to compete with Western vaccine powerhouses.

 

It is imperative to identify the factors behind Japan’s poor vaccine performance and work out policy plans to fix the problems.

 

The domestic market for vaccines, estimated to be worth 320 billion yen ($2.9 billion), pales in comparison to overall sales of pharmaceuticals in Japan, a market to the tune of 10 trillion yen. Drug makers tend to be daunted by the prospect of taking a massive blow to their bottom lines if the vaccines they sell cause serious side effects.

 

Government policy support is indispensable. It should take the form of connecting businesses with universities and research institutes or helping to create research and manufacturing facilities and buying vaccines from manufacturers.

 

Some tough challenges are posed by the clinical trial process. Conducting a clinical trial of a domestically developed vaccine when some foreign vaccines recognized as effective and safe and formally approved are already available. This raises some ethical questions.

 

Guidelines for such clinical trials need to be implemented after thorough debate to secure broad public understanding. What conditions and procedures will be needed to secure a sufficient number of volunteers, for instance? Or is there any viable alternative to a large-scale clinical trial at home?

 

The government’s long-term strategy also calls for cooperating with other countries in Asia. There is no doubt about the importance of joint efforts with Asian nations to improve clinical research and trials for vaccine development. But Japan should go beyond simply focusing on its own interests and pay serious attention to the viewpoint of making an international contribution.

 

Above all else, the government should not spare any effort to support basic research. The two COVID-19 vaccines used in Japan’s vaccination campaign–the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines–use messenger RNA (mRNA), a genetic material that our cells read to make proteins. These vaccines are the product of many years of steady basic research.

 

If the government only promotes research projects likely to produce short-term results under the slogan of “selection and concentration,” it cannot hope to better prepare the nation for new crises. 

 

Also, if the government seriously wants to enhance the foundation of the nation’s scientific and technological competitiveness, it needs to provide adequate support to basic research projects regardless of whether they will produce practical results.

 

Efforts to map out and execute effective plans while establishing an evaluation system are vital to the quest of developing and manufacturing vaccines. Specialist training is also crucial for the future of vaccination programs in Japan.

 

There is stronger skepticism about vaccines in Japan than in many other countries due to the number of instances where devastating side effects had a huge social impact. This makes it all the more important for the government to promote broad social recognition of both benefits and risks of vaccines by explaining them carefully from the viewpoints of public health and personal wellbeing.

 

Policy responses to a pandemic are closely linked with the nation’s security and foreign policies. The government needs to make steady efforts to achieve the goal while avoiding the mistakes it made after the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

 

–The Asahi Shimbun, June 7

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