What is Japan doing towards the corona virus, and why may Loonshots be needed?

To tackle the current corona virus outbreak, Japan and especially its Agency for Medical Research and Development AMED and the National Institute for Infectious Deceases NIID focus on research. AMED president Dr Suematsu explains activities they...

To tackle the current corona virus outbreak, Japan and especially its Agency for Medical Research and Development AMED and the National Institute for Infectious Deceases NIID focus on research. AMED president Dr Suematsu explains activities they engage in, how little actually is known concerning the new virus, and that international collaboration and sharing knowledge is fundamental. In this situation, completely new and innovative ideas may be needed, including promoting Loonshots. PM Abe and PM Löfven recently also have discussed and stressed the importance of scientific collaboration.

The fundamental role of knowledge, research and innovation for tackling societal challenges has become most evident around the world with the current Covid-19 outbreak, and how to mitigate and to find cure and vaccine. For this, international collaboration and knowledge sharing it of utmost importance for speeding up effective means towards the virus.

The Japanese government is committed to tackling Covid-19, and concerning research and innovation, the research ministry MEXT and the Ministry for Health, Labour and Welfare MHLW fund a range of activities through agencies, institutes and projects, with AMED and NIID as important governmental institutions in the field.

Japan was early to initiate activities towards the current corona virus SARS-CoV-2, not least since the cruise ship Diamond Princess with its outbreak was outside Yokohama at the time. AMED has since earlier activities and international collaboration platforms around corona and rare diseases, and have intensified actions for tackling the current pandemic. Already the previous budget year they allocated around 30 MEUR on anti-SARS-CoV2 platforms, and now invest 150 MEUR, with also supplementary budgets under way.

On April 7, MHLW announced a supplementary package for research and development of therapeutic agents vaccine, with 230 MEUR for Development promotion of vaccines and treatment methods, and 140 MEUR for Strengthening of international cooperation.

Action areas that AMED focus on include:

  • Development of diagnostic methods: Research on development of diagnostic tests for the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19); and Development of serum antibody diagnostic system.
  • Treatment development: Selection of therapeutic drug candidates by in silico analysis; and Antiviral drug development.
  • Vaccine development: Research on development of vaccines of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19); and Study on the control of a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

AMED also support data sharing for diagnostics, and diagnostic imaging.

The National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) are involved in development of diagnostic methods through strengthening inspection system, and verification of equivalency of test reagents. Together with Nagasaki University and Canon Medical Systems they also have developed a portable and more rapid coronavirus test equipment for up to 700 tests per day each, which now is distributed to university hospitals and medical institutions. The system uses fluorescent dye activated from the virus’ genetic material, which is simpler and more rapid than the standard polymerase chain-reaction tests. Also, Yokohama City University has developed a rapid diagnostic test system.

NIID, as well as Tokyo University and Osaka University are engaged in vaccine research and development based on monoclonal antibodies. Japan is also testing existing pharmaceuticals efficiency towards the corona virus. The anti-RNApol Avigan has shown effect, and other studied include the anti-HIV Kalentra, the inhaled steroid Orvesco and the anti-Ebola Remdesivir. Recently, Tokyo University has initiated studies of Nafamostat, a protease inhibitor used in pancreatitis.

Further, AI is implemented in scientific research, and also in the understanding of how the virus is transmitted in society, as well as in detecting and alerting false news on social media. Initiatives for developing rapid test kits for antibodies for detection of immunity for the current virus are ongoing.

At the end of March, just before ending the term as president for AMED, president Suematsu met with the EU Science and Technology Counsellors and presented the agency’s activities and called for international collaboration.

The outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship (aka Corona Princess) that was quarantined outside Yokohama gave important and interesting information on the virus. In total, 14 percent of the passengers were confirmed infected, but around 50 percent of these did not have any symptoms when the tests were made. And even 17 days after the last quarantined person had left the ship, the virus could still be detected on surfaces inside the vessel.

Although Japan and other countries execute extensive research on the virus, Dr Suematsu described SARS-CoV-2 as a largely unidentified enemy. He stressed the need for international collaboration and for sharing information. He wanted any successful or unsuccessful experiment to be shared. To tackle the virus effectively, there is also a need for novel and radical ideas, bringing up that “there is a need for Loonshots”!

On April 3, Prime Ministers Abe and Löfven spoke concerning the ongoing pandemic. They exchanged information on national strategies and learnings. They also expressed the importance of exchange concerning medical devices and of scientific collaboration to tackle the ongoing societal challenge.

Sweden and Japan has long-standing research and innovation collaboration in many fields, not least Life Sciences with well-renowned actors from both countries. Apart from existing collaboration and information sharing, perhaps we can join forces and bring forward Loonshots with radically new approaches for tackling the corona virus?