Morning Alert   -   Thursday, May 14, 2020
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Morning news

Most TV networks and national papers led with reports that the GOJ will make a formal decision later today to lift the state of emergency for 39 prefectures. The networks said the state of emergency will remain in place for Hokkaido, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Osaka, Kyoto, and Hyogo, adding that the GOJ will consider around May 21 whether to lift the state of emergency for these prefectures. Fuji TV led with a report that Shobushi, a 28-year-old sumo wrestler, died of COVID-19 yesterday, saying that this is the first coronavirus-related death of someone under the age of 30 in Japan.

In addition to the plan to partially lift the state of emergency, all national dallies gave front-page play to the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s approval of a draft report concluding that Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.’s nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, meets the new safety standards.


GOJ to lift state of emergency for 39 prefectures

All national papers reported that the GOJ is expected to lift the state of emergency today for 39 prefectures, including Ibaraki, Aichi, and three other prefectures designated as areas that warrant special attention on the grounds that a spike in new cases in those areas is unlikely since they have seen no or few new cases for a while. The emergency declaration for Tokyo, Osaka, Hokkaido, Kyoto, and four other prefectures will remain in place for the time being. Although the numbers of new cases have been relatively small in Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, and Hyogo for the past week, the GOJ will still keep the state of emergency in place in those areas based on the assessment that lifting it might encourage people to travel to and from neighboring Tokyo or Osaka, which could trigger an outbreak. The GOJ is likely to decide whether to maintain the state of emergency in the eight remaining prefectures on May 21 while considering the numbers of cases in the preceding week. Prime Minister Abe plans to hold a press conference this evening to explain these decisions.

Coronavirus taskforce to propose criteria for discontinuing state of emergency

All national dailies reported that the GOJ’s blue-ribbon commission composed of epidemiologists and other leading public health experts is expected to submit to the GOJ today a set of criteria for lifting the state of emergency in individual prefectures. The criteria will reportedly include whether the number of new cases was 0.5 or fewer per 100,000 people during the preceding week. Even if this criterion is not met, the state of emergency could be lifted based on other factors, such as the ease of contact tracing and the availability of ICU beds, PCR diagnostic testing, and other healthcare resources. The taskforce is also set to establish criteria for re-imposing a state of emergency, including numbers of new cases in the past week that point to an exponential rise in the epidemic curve, infection reproduction rates, and the percentage of patients whose infection routes cannot be traced.

The taskforce will also reportedly recommend that all prefectures be put into one of three categories depending on the number of cases: areas that warrant special attention; areas that need to be watched for infection expansion; and areas that require monitoring so as to maintain vigilance against potential waves of infection in the future. Various restrictions on people’s movement, events, and business operations will be imposed or recommended for each category.

Antibody tests to be conducted in Okinawa and Tokyo

Nikkei reported that the prefectural governments of Okinawa and Tokyo plan to conduct COVID-19 antibody tests on certain people in May and June, respectively, in the hope of ascertaining the state of infection among the general public and using the results to judge whether or not full-fledged resumption of local economies is possible. Although the accuracy of antibody test kits is inferior to PCR diagnostic testing, the daily said some public health experts still emphasize the importance of conducting such tests repeatedly in preparation for the “second wave” of infection in the autumn or beyond that many virologists are predicting.

Meanwhile, Yomiuri and Mainichi wrote that the first batch of some 400,000 coronavirus antigen test kits will be used at designated hospitals for outpatients in Hokkaido, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Osaka, and Okinawa this month. As nearly 800,000 kits will become available per month in June or later, they will be eventually be administered to patients suspected of having the virus in other prefectures. The antigen tests will reportedly be covered under public health insurance. Asahi said the Health Ministry issued yesterday an advisory recommending antigen tests only be administered to those with fever or other symptoms because tests of asymptomatic patients may produce false negatives on account of the test kits’ low accuracy compared with PCR testing.

Health Ministry to skip clinical trials in approving Avigan for COVID-19 treatment

Asahi and Nikkei reported on Wednesday that the Health Ministry decided on Tuesday that when applying for approval of new drugs to treat COVID-19, pharmaceutical companies will be exempted from submitting the results of clinical trials. The waiver is intended to swiftly identify and approve new treatments for the virus such as the flu drug Avigan. While exempting pharmaceutical makers from the prior submission requirement, the ministry will still ask them to present data verifying the safety and the effectiveness of their proposed drugs learned through publicly financed, high-level research programs. Applicants will also be required to submit the results of their clinical trials after approval is issued. The dailies said some experts are concerned that drug safety screening processes may be compromised under the public health emergency.

Four out of five public schools to reopen by June 1

Yomiuri reported on the disclosure by the Education Ministry on Wednesday that 86% of national, prefectural, municipal, and private elementary, middle, and high schools were closed due to the coronavirus outbreak as of May 11. However, almost 80% of public schools plan to reopen in the final week of this month or on June 1. 


Japan lobbies for Taiwan’s participation in WHO conference as observer

Yomiuri reported on remarks made at the Diet yesterday by Foreign Minister Motegi, who said Japan is pushing for Taiwan to be allowed to take part in the WHO videoconference next week as an observer. Pointing out that Taipei successfully reined in the COVID-19 outbreak at an early stage, the minister was quoted as saying: “The international community can learn a lot from Taiwan. We would like to lobby for its participation…. Frankly speaking, China is the problem.”

Senior diplomats of Japan, ROK hold teleconference

Yomiuri, Asahi, and Mainichi reported that MOFA Asian and Oceanian Bureau Affairs Director General Takizaki and his South Korean counterpart held a teleconference on Wednesday. While the officials agreed to settle the bilateral requisitioned workers dispute quickly, the Japanese diplomat reportedly stressed that Seoul should take the lead in doing so. According to Asahi, they also exchanged views on Japan’s imposition of tighter control on Korea-bound strategic materials. Takizaki reportedly voiced concern about South Korea’s “unilateral announcement” to the press a day earlier calling for Japan to end the regulation quickly on the grounds that Seoul has already addressed the issues raised by the Japanese side.


U.S. casino giant gives up on Japan project

All national papers took up an announcement made by Las Vegas Sands Corp. on Wednesday that it will end its plan to obtain a casino license in Japan as it needs to focus on its existing business operations, noting that the world’s largest casino operator has suffered huge losses in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Mayor Hayashi of Yokohama, where the U.S. firm had hoped to open a gambling establishment, said the decision will not affect her quest to host a casino. Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga, whose constituency is in Yokohama, also emphasized yesterday that there is no change in the GOJ’s plan to open integrated resorts featuring casinos. However, several dailies forecast that other foreign casino operators may be tempted to take a second look at their own plans in Japan in view of the severe business environment due to the pandemic.

Motegi, Lighthizer confirm cooperation on WTO reform

Mainichi reported on a teleconference held yesterday between Foreign Minister Motegi and USTR Lighthizer, during which they agreed to enhance mutual coordination to pursue institutional reforms of the World Trade Organization. They also agreed on the importance of establishing new rules for digital commerce amid the coronavirus pandemic. The two officials reportedly did not discuss bilateral free trade talks.

Japan, UK to start free trade talks soon

All national dailies except Nikkei reported on a UK government announcement yesterday that it will soon launch negotiations with Japan on an economic partnership agreement with the goal of sealing a deal by the year’s end. While London is hoping to quickly conclude a bilateral trade accord equivalent to the existing Japan-EU EPA that includes cuts in tariffs on goods and regulations on digital trade, the daily said the coronavirus pandemic may stall the planned free trade talks.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team