Japan’s failure to produce mass market Covid vaccine highlights ‘medical research shortcomings’
- Once promising to be the first to develop a vaccine, Japan was the worst performing G7 nation in publishing scientific papers about the coronavirus
- Lack of government funding is a major reason Japanese drug companies are falling behind other nations, according to one professor
Nearly three years on, however, those lofty ambitions have largely fallen flat.
Instead, medical industry insiders say the country’s laggard status in this respect has served to highlight how it has fallen behind other developed nations in medical advances as well as a host of other areas of scientific research.
Some have expressed concerns that the lack of a home-grown vaccine – and the inability of local researchers to act fast enough to react to new pathogens – could prove costly as new variants emerge.
On Wednesday, the government reported 87,410 infections, an increase of more than 6,000 cases from the previous day, as well as 97 deaths.
The panel of experts set up at the outset of the health crisis to advise the government reported on Wednesday that an eighth wave has begun, with weekly cases up 40 per cent.
The peak of the seventh wave topped 260,000 daily cases in August, and experts suggest that figure is likely to be eclipsed.
“There are several reasons why Japan failed to produce a drug, but I think the most basic issue is funding,” said Yoko Tsukamoto, a professor at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido.
“Yes, the Japanese government did put up money, but not nearly as much as other countries.”
As a result, clinical tests were never conducted on women who were known or suspected to be pregnant, meaning the possible side-effects were never fully determined.
The implication was that a degree of national pride was at stake and Abe foresaw Japanese knowledge and expertise curing the world of the pandemic.
The plan met stiff resistance from the Ministry of Health, however, because comprehensive clinical trials were never completed and the ministry was desperate to avoid a repeat of a number of scandals in recent years involving unanticipated side-effects from medication.
Work to prove the efficacy – and safety – of Avigan continued until March this year, when trials were quietly halted because tests proved inconclusive and the Omicron variant was milder than previous strains, even if it was more easily transmitted.
The failures of Japan’s medical research do not end there, critics argue. A study by the Centre for Research and Development Strategy showed that Japan in 2020 ranked 16th globally in terms of scientific papers about the coronavirus, with 1,739 published.
In 2021, Japan climbed to 14th with 3,551 studies and moved up to 12th position in the first five months of 2022, with 1,600 papers.
Even more alarmingly, when the quality of the papers was assessed by leading medical journals, such as The Lancet and Nature, Japanese scientists’ rankings fell from 18th in 2020 to 30th in 2021.
An official of a leading Japanese pharmaceutical firm agreed that domestic firms had failed when it comes to the coronavirus.
“The government says it fully supports innovation in the healthcare sector, yet Japanese firms were completely absent from the extraordinarily fast creation, testing and production of coronavirus vaccines,” said the official, who declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
“Now, there is deep concern about the international competitiveness of Japanese drug companies,” he said. “But to get back to being innovative is going to take time, money and a change of attitude at Japanese companies and the government. If that does not happen, Japan will effectively be reliant on imports of advanced medicines.”