Morning Alert   -   Friday, May 8, 2020
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Morning news

NHK and Fuji TV gave top play to reports that the GOJ gave fast-track approval on Thursday evening to the antiviral drug remdesivir for COVID-19 treatment just three days after the application was filed. The GOJ is reportedly only planning to administer the drug to patients who are seriously ill. NTV led with a report that the state of emergency may be lifted on May 14 for 17 prefectures where no new cases have been confirmed for the last seven days. TBS reported that 24 of the approximately 780 pachinko parlors in Tokyo reopened yesterday. TV Asahi gave top play to a report that restrictions on business operations were eased yesterday in the 34 prefectures that are not designated as areas that warrant special attention.

Front-page items in national papers included the Health Ministry’s approval of remdesivir for COVID-19 treatment, indications by Prime Minister Abe and another cabinet minister on Thursday that the state of emergency could be lifted in certain prefectures on May 14, and decisions by some prefectural governments yesterday to ease business restrictions.


State of emergency may be lifted for 17 prefectures

All national papers took up remarks made to the press on Thursday by Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Nishimura suggesting that the ongoing state of emergency over the coronavirus pandemic may be lifted for 17 prefectures in Tohoku, Shikoku, and other regions on May 14 since no COVID-19 cases have been confirmed there in the past seven days. He said the GOJ will seek the advice of experts before making a final decision. The minister in charge of the GOJ’s response to the outbreak also reportedly indicated that the central government may formulate a set of criteria for lifting the state of emergency that would include the number of patients in the past few weeks, the number of patients whose infection routes cannot be traced, and PCR testing capacity and other components of the healthcare system.

According to Sankei, Prime Minister Abe also hinted at ending the state of emergency for some prefectures as early as May 14. In an exclusive interview conducted yesterday, he emphasized that the GOJ is committed to mobilizing all available resources to quickly develop a vaccine and identify drugs that can be used to treat the new virus.

Majority support extension of state of emergency

Mainichi front-paged the results of a nationwide public opinion poll that showed some 66% felt that Prime Minister Abe’s decision to extend the state of emergency through May 31 was appropriate, while one out of four said it should have been extended only for limited areas. About 46% said it probably will not be possible to lift the state of emergency on May 31. Almost 70% expressed anxiety about healthcare and testing capacities. Only one out of five approved of the Abe administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, while almost 50% disapproved of it. Support for the Abe cabinet dropped 4 points to 40% from a month ago while nonsupport rose 3 points to 45%. Some 45% were also in favor of the idea of starting the new school year in September, whereas 30% felt otherwise.

Remdesivir approved for coronavirus treatment

All national papers wrote that the Health Ministry on Thursday approved the antiviral drug remdesivir for COVID-19 treatment, saying that it will be administered only to patients in serious condition. While noting that the ministry will manage the domestic distribution of the drug for the time being since supplies from the U.S. will probably be limited, Nikkei said the GOJ is expected to ask Gilead Sciences to provide a stable supply. Mainichi claimed that the GOJ approved the drug swiftly in order to secure a sufficient supply of it, explaining that the ministry took only three days to screen and approve the U.S. pharmaceutical company’s application by using an “exceptional approval” mechanism. The papers noted that some Japanese doctors are skeptical of the drug’s effectiveness in reducing the virus’s mortality rate. They have also expressed concern about its potential side effects and the possibility of the emergence of a virus strain with antimicrobial resistance, underscoring the importance for Japan to conduct its own clinical tests to verify remdesivir’s performance independently.

Abe mentions possibility of conducting COVID-19 antigen testing

Nikkei and Yomiuri highlighted Prime Minister Abe’s written remarks to the press yesterday saying that novel coronavirus antigen tests may be conducted soon to ascertain the extent of the outbreak. He was quoted as saying: “Antigen testing kits will become available for use in the near future. They will be utilized as a supplement to PCR diagnostic testing.”

Cabinet minister, Osaka governor trade barbs over “exit strategy”

All national dailies reported that Osaka Governor Yoshimura engaged in a Twitter dispute with Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Nishimura over the criteria for lifting the COVID-19 state of emergency. The cabinet member reportedly took issue with the Osaka leader’s remarks that the central government needs to come up with an “exit strategy.” When announcing guidelines on Tuesday for phasing out his requests for local businesses to suspend operations, the governor said he drafted an exit strategy because the central government has not done so. Nishimura voiced “strong displeasure” with Yoshimura’s reference to an “exit strategy” by saying that the governor does not understand the division of labor between the central and local governments. The two politicians reportedly mended fences on Thursday following another exchange of tweets criticizing each other.

Foreign media critical of Japan’s handling of coronavirus outbreak

Asahi ran a prominent inside-page article on growing criticism among foreign media outlets of Japan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on their distrust of Japan’s apparent failure to widely conduct PCR diagnostic tests. The article also highlighted a U.S. Embassy health alert for American citizens issued on April 3 that said: “The Japanese Government’s decision to not test broadly makes it difficult to accurately assess the COVID-19 prevalence rate.” The daily said MOFA earmarked 2.4 billion yen ($20 million) in the FY2020 supplementary budget on the novel coronavirus to analyze foreign media coverage and social media messages on the Japanese situation, adding that it is using video and other content in multiple languages to address what it sees as misleading narratives on Japan’s handling of the virus outbreak.

Prominent diplomacy analyst Yukio Okamoto dies of coronavirus

NHK reported this morning that according to a MOFA source, Yukio Okamoto, a diplomacy analyst and former special advisor to Prime Minister Hashimoto and Prime Minister Koizumi, died of COVID-19 in late April at the age of 74. The network said Okamoto served in such key posts at MOFA as director of the First North America Division before leaving the ministry to become a diplomacy analyst. He oversaw Okinawa issues as a special advisor to Prime Minister Hashimoto and was also tapped as a special advisor to Prime Minister Koizumi and led preparatory work for Japan's project to provide reconstruction assistance to Iraq.


Nearly 30 prefectures move to relax restrictions on business activities

All national papers reported that a total of 28 prefectural governments across the country decided on Thursday to discontinue immediately, gradually, or partially their requests for local business owners to suspend operations on the grounds that they have been successful in containing the coronavirus outbreak in their jurisdictions. However, many of these regional governments are still urging local businesses to implement social distancing measures.

Keidanren proposes four-day workweek for factories

Nikkei reported that the Japan Economic Federation drew up a set of guidelines regarding the reopening of economic activities following the eventual end to the state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic. Keidanren is expected to urge its member firms in the manufacturing sector to operate their assembly plants four days per week. The leading business lobby will also propose the continuation of telework and online meetings to reduce interactions among employees as much as possible. It also advises checking employees’ temperatures upon arrival at the workplace and reconfiguring workstations so that there is two meters between each employee.


No consensus reached within USG on origin of “Wuhan virus”

Yomiuri wrote from Washington that there appears to be no consensus among USG officials about the theory that the novel coronavirus outbreak originated at a biomedical laboratory in Wuhan. The daily said although President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo have mentioned the existence of “evidence,” the U.S. intelligence community and the U.S. military are apparently skeptical about the idea. While noting that the Trump administration is set to hold Beijing accountable for engaging in an information cover-up and hence triggering the pandemic, the article predicted that it will probably be difficult to pinpoint the origin of the pathogen. Sankei published a similar story, quoting the Secretary as saying on Wednesday: “We don’t have certainty, and there’s significant evidence that this came from the laboratory. Those statements can both be true.”

Abe, Putin affirm mutual coordination to stem coronavirus

All national papers reported on a teleconference held on Thursday evening between Prime Minister Abe and Russian President Putin. The two leaders reportedly confirmed cooperation to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control quickly. They reportedly welcomed the manufacturing and marketing of COVID-19 diagnostic testing kits by a Russo-Japanese joint venture. They also agreed to continue bilateral peace treaty negotiations.

Launch of high-speed train project in India to be delayed

Yomiuri wrote that Japan and India have reached the conclusion that it will be difficult to start the operation of a new high-speed railway using Japan’s shinkansen system between Ahmedabad and Mumbai in 2023 as originally planned because of difficulty purchasing land and high costs.


Japanese, Australian defense chiefs agree on upholding rule of law at sea

Sankei reported that Defense Minister Kono and his Australian counterpart Reynolds held a teleconference yesterday and confirmed the importance of respecting the rule of law in view of China’s continued aggressive maritime operations. They also agreed to enhance bilateral defense cooperation based on the free and open Indo-Pacific initiative.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team