Japan depends on overseas vaccines due to 30 years of inaction

Nikkein -- May 10
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's visit to the U.S. last month included a phone call to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, as the Japanese leader sought to secure doses of the American company's coronavirus vaccine.

Taro Kono, Japan's minister for regulatory reform, is the point man for the country's vaccination campaign. But Bourla let it be known that he wanted to speak with Suga directly.

Suga had little choice but to make the call. Japan lags far behind the U.S., the U.K., China, Russia and even Vietnam and India in developing a coronavirus inoculation, the result of 30 years of inaction to dispel the public's lack of confidence in side effects caused by vaccinations.

As the world scrambles to develop COVID-19 vaccines, no homegrown Japanese version has been approved.

"We haven't had the same explosion in cases like the U.S. and Europe," a health ministry official who oversees pharmaceuticals said. "We can observe the safety and effectiveness of vaccines abroad before introducing them to Japan."

Through the 1980s, Japan possessed world-class vaccination technology for chickenpox, encephalitis and whooping cough that it licensed to the U.S. and other countries.

But vaccine development ground to a virtual halt with a 1992 court decision that ordered the government to pay compensation related to side effects of inoculations.

The public viewed the ruling as a landmark decision that opened the way for wider compensation of victims, and the government dropped its appeal. Inoculations ceased to be mandatory after Japan amended a law in 1994, and the country's vaccination rate declined as parents became more concerned about side effects.

The AIDS crisis had an impact as well. In 1996, a health ministry official was convicted of negligent homicide in a scandal involving HIV-contaminated blood products in Japan. Despite the effort at accountability, the incident left an impression among bureaucrats that if anything goes wrong, they would take the blame while politicians would be off the hook.

Japan now faces a "vaccine gap," as product approvals take several years in the U.S. and Europe but require more than 10 for Tokyo. The Pfizer vaccine being administered to the elderly in Japan received special approval from the health ministry, but this procedure applies only to overseas vaccines.

- Nikkein