TOKYO — The Nikkei FT Communicable Diseases Conference ended Thursday with the adoption of the “Tokyo Communicable Diseases Statement 2021,” which stresses the importance of digital technology in preparing for a possible sixth wave of COVID-19 infections in Japan.
“The recent plunge in the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus in Japan is attributable to the effects of vaccination and popular cooperation” with measures to fight the pandemic, said Shigeru Omi, an immunologist who heads the government’s subcommittee on COVID response and who chaired the two-day conference co-sponsored by Nikkei, the Financial Times and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
Although Japan got a late start on vaccination compared with other advanced nations, the number of people who have been vaccinated twice reached had reached 70% of the population as of Tuesday, one of the highest ratios among developed countries.
People in Japan have maintained “a high sense of hygiene, such as wearing face masks, despite advances in inoculation,” said Nahoko Shindo, senior adviser to the World Health Organization, who served as vice chair of the conference. “That is a big difference from countries where infections are increasing despite a high rate of vaccination,” she said.
In winter, however, infections tend to rise more people move about, and eat and drink outside their homes, toward the end of the year. This makes it more important to balance reopening the economy with COVID-19 prevention.
The statement thus called for strengthening the health care system and upgrading the health screening regime. Advances in inoculation to curb severe infections may lead to a rise in the number of people with mild or asymptomatic infections that cannot be detected by conventional health exams.
“We will have to review how COVID tests should be handled,” Yasuyuki Sahara, director-general of the Health Service Bureau at the health ministry, said at the conference. Participants agreed on the need for a new regime that combines several measures, such as sewage inspection, to understand the overall infection picture, and the use of health monitoring apps to detect mildly infected people.
The statement also mentioned the importance of government programs, such as the “vaccination and testing package,” and the use of digital technology, such as QR codes, to alert people who have had contact with infected people.
The government aims to encourage a full resumption of economic activity, while minimizing infection risks through the COVID prevention package. The goal is to ease restrictions on people with vaccine passports or certified negative polymerase chain reaction test results.
Studies are underway in various parts of Japan to look for problems with the system and determine its cost. According to the Cabinet Secretariat, demonstrations of the technology and its application to public places and events — restaurants, concerts, package tours by travel agencies — were set by Thursday to take place place in 11 prefectures, including Kyoto and Hokkaido.
The government is set to begin using a vaccine certification app in December, while the “vaccination and testing package” is expected to be included in the COVID prevention measures program the government will adopt in early November to fight the coronavirus.
For these measures to be effective, the public must understand them and give its support. According to a survey conducted by the conference at the end of August, some 70% of 1,000 people asked said they were willing to show their vaccination status and test results when asked. Regarding incentives to facilitate cooperation, people in their 20s to 30s called for “financial rewards such as loyalty program points,” while respondents in their 60s stressed the need for “scientific and numerical proof of the effectiveness of vaccines by experts.”
“Meticulous countermeasures, such as the dissemination of information, differentiated by age group, are needed,” said Yoko Uryuhara, an associate professor at Doshisha University.
The Osaka prefectural government and other entities have already introduced a QR code-based mechanism to have people register their points of contact and other information at the entrance of restaurants and event venues so that they can be informed when an infection occurs. The central government will also promote the use of a QR-code entry registration system.
“Innovations will be created to contain regional infections,” said Hiroshi Nishiura, a professor at Kyoto University. If digital technology innovations are widely used, they will make it possible to quantitatively understand risks, such as the types of places where infections tend to spread, he said.
If combined with government systems, such as the management of information on infected people, the innovations can be used to prevent cluster infections because they will make it easier to trace those who have had close contract with infected people.
However, there are challenges that must be overcome before digital technology and data can be widely used. Coronavirus-related systems controlled by the government, such as those for the management of vaccines and data on infected people, do not connect smoothly. “The burden on bedside physicians will be eased if systems are organically connected to each other,” said Takanori Fujita, a specially appointed associate professor at Keio University.
To protect personal information, Ken Osaka, a professor at Tohoku University, stressed the need for greater transparency. “It is important to make clear to the public what the purpose of using such data is.”