- The total number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Japan stood at 16,951 on Wednesday 3 June, health officials said, with a total of 903 people who lost their lives as a result of the disease.Tokyo Gov Yuriko Koike issued a warning on Tuesday 2 June amid signs of a possible resurgence of coronavirus infections, as 34 cases were newly reported in the Japanese capital. The warning she calls a “Tokyo alert” serves as a call for caution. But if the number further increases, the Tokyo government plans to issue requests again to businesses and people that would halt social and economic activities.The number is the highest since Japan fully lifted its state of emergency last week and the first time since 14 May for daily infection cases to top 30. At a coronavirus task force meeting late Tuesday, Koike urged Tokyo residents to “be very cautious of going to places such as the nightlife districts” that put people at risk of being in closed spaces, crowded places and close contact with other people. The alert, however, is not intended to move back the phases she has already implemented, said Koike.
As of Tuesday, the tally has brought the total number of infections in the Japanese capital to 5,283 and 306 deaths, while the number for the entire country reached 16,951 cases and 903 deaths, excluding those from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokohama near Tokyo in February.
Following the Japanese government’s lifting of the state of emergency on 25 May, the country took cautious steps in reopening the economy. Tokyo has laid out a three-step plan to ease virus restrictions, with museums, schools and sports facilities without spectator stands reopened in the first phase. The second phase saw movie theaters and sports gyms reopen on Monday 1 June. Karaoke boxes and bars will be able to reopen in the third phase of the capital’s road map, which was revised following the inclusion of such establishments in the central government’s post-emergency policy last week.
The Tokyo metropolitan government building and the capital’s landmark Rainbow Bridge were lit up in red from 11:00 to indicate the governor’s warning was issued. Economy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said last Sunday that the government has no immediate plan to place Tokyo and Fukuoka Prefecture under a state of emergency again despite the areas seeing an increase in cases.
- On Tuesday 2 June, Japan’s government said to approve saliva-based tests for the new coronavirus, offering a safer, simpler way to diagnose infection than nasal swabs as it looks to boost its testing rates.The new testing method targets those within nine days of displaying symptoms and is covered by public health insurance. It is expected to pose less of an infection risk to medical staff, as examinees only provide their saliva in a container at medical facilities.
The existing method uses a cotton swab to collect mucus from the nose, which has a high possibility of causing the patients to sneeze or cough in the process. As it leaves medical staff collecting the sample prone to potential infection, they need to wear goggles and a gown. This has become a sticking point in expanding the scale of PCR testing.
The test will be available at outpatient departments at designated hospitals and PCR testing centers. It will also be used for patients with coronavirus symptoms and staff at medical institutions to avoid in-hospital infection.
There has been concern that the amount of virus could be smaller in saliva than in mucus from the nose, resulting in less accurate test results. But research on specimens from 88 coronavirus patients found that the results were all but identical between the two methods for those within nine days of showing symptoms.
- The head of the World Health Organization on Monday called Japan’s efforts in tackling the spread of the new coronavirus a “success.” WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus made the assessment during a news conference in Geneva held in the wake of Japan’s decision to lift a state of emergency in all parts of the nation after it was first declared in early April.Tedros praised Japan for stemming the epidemic in recent weeks, reducing the spread of infections from more than 700 cases a day at the peak of the outbreak, and for keeping the number of deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, at a relatively low level.But he stressed at the same time that it is important for people in Japan to continue practicing social distancing and other basic precautionary measures, rules that apply to all countries when strict restrictions imposed to fight the virus are loosened.
On Monday, an advisory panel gave the go-ahead to the government’s plan to end the emergency in Tokyo, its surrounding prefectures and Hokkaido, after determining such aspects as the number of newly reported cases over the past week and the availability of medical resources in those areas are satisfactory.
The areas were the last among the nation’s 47 prefectures that were still covered by the state of emergency declaration and the accompanying voluntary restrictions, which requested some types of businesses to shut temporarily and for people to stay home as much as possible.
- Japanese drugmakers are accelerating their development of vaccines for the coronavirus even as foreign rivals seem to be leading the global race, with the government pushing homegrown efforts to secure stable supplies for the country. Around 125 vaccines are currently under development globally, including 10 in human testing as of 27 May, according to the World Health Organization. But given the expected surge in demand, the Japanese government is concerned that foreign vaccines would be limited in supply and not widely available for people in Japan.”In terms of the need to secure the necessary volume, a vaccine produced domestically by a Japanese company is best,” said an official of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. The Japanese government has decided to facilitate large-scale manufacturing of coronavirus vaccines by launching a subsidy program for producers, government sources said in late May. It hopes to make vaccines available to people soon after they are deemed suitable for use, they said.
Anges Inc, a Japanese biopharmaceutical startup set up by an Osaka University professor, said it will start clinical tests of its DNA vaccine, manufactured by Takara Bio Inc as early as July, aiming to have it administered to humans around March 2021.
Shionogi & Co aims to launch a recombinant protein vaccine for the novel coronavirus, possibly in fall next year, as it is preparing to begin clinical trials by the end of this year. It intends to produce enough vaccine doses for 10 million people from January 2021 onward.
Medicago Inc, a Canadian unit of Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma Corp, has confirmed the efficacy of a plant-derived vaccine during animal testing and is seeking to supply it in Canada in 2022 after conducting clinical tests. The company will consider exporting it to Japan.
KM Biologics Co based in Kumamoto, a group firm of Meiji Holdings Co, is developing an inactivated vaccine without a live pathogen and is planning to start clinical tests next spring or later. It plans to conduct animal testing with the University of Tokyo and the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, aiming to complete it by March next year.
KM Biologics also said it is willing to open its facility, one of the country’s largest manufacturing bases that can produce sufficient new influenza vaccine for 57 million people in six months, to other companies if they succeed in developing a coronavirus vaccine.
Tokyo-based ID Pharma Co is another domestic company promoting vaccine research in cooperation with the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.
Yoshihiro Kawaoka, professor at the Institute of Medical Science at the University of Tokyo, said, “Developing a vaccine and making it available widely are completely different things. I don’t assume it will be ready by this winter. Even if all goes well, it would be in the fall of next year at the earliest” that a vaccine will be delivered to the public, Kawaoka said.
As for therapeutic drugs for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, a number of producers are conducting studies to repurpose existing treatments, including anti-influenza drug Avigan, also known as favipiravir, developed by a chemical arm of Fujifilm Holdings Corp.
Ono Pharmaceutical Co. also said it intends to carry out clinical tests on its chronic pancreatitis drug Foipan, also known as camostat, for possible COVID-19 treatment. Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., Nippon Shinyaku Co. and PeptiDream Inc. have also unveiled plans to develop a new therapeutic drug for COVID-19.
- A team of Japanese researchers has succeeded in creating miniature bronchi — passageways that conduct air into the lungs — from human cells that can be used to study the novel coronavirus and help develop drugs for COVID-19, according to a paper recently released online.The researchers at Kyoto University’s Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, or CiRA, and other organizations have created bronchial organoids with a diameter of 0.2 millimeter from commercially available cryopreserved human bronchial epithelial cells. They take roughly 10 days to cultivate.
They then infected the organoids with the pneumonia-causing virus, and tested camostat, a drug often used for treating pancreatitis, according to the paper posted online on 26 May. They found it was effective in reducing the viral load in the organoids. It is hoped the miniature organ will serve as a better model for evaluating anti-viral drugs’ efficacy than a single cell.
The miniature bronchi the team has created contain four types of cells as well as a receptor for COVID-19. The team said it is now testing the efficacy of other medicines, including anti-flu drug Avigan, also known as favipiravir, developed by a chemical arm of Fujifilm Holdings Corp.
“Since developing a drug (for COVID-19) is an urgent task, we chose a method that is simple and does not take time, without using iPS cells,” said Kazuo Takayama, a researcher at CiRA and member of the team. “We are hoping for a drug development using this research.” He referred to induced pluripotent stem cells which can grow into any kind of cell.
- Many tourist spots across Japan reopened on Monday 1 June, one week after the full lifting of a state of emergency, with precautions in place against the novel coronavirus amid growing concern over a second wave of infections. The Japanese capital’s landmark Tokyo Skytree tower reopened with shortened visiting hours and measures to prevent infections after a three-month closure.The operator of the 634-meter tower asked elementary school students and older visitors to wear face masks and use sanitizers at its entrance, among other measures. Shirakawa and Nanto, central Japan, each opened a group of traditional thatched-roof houses after closing them for about a month. The two areas are registered on the World Heritage list as a cultural site straddling Gifu and Toyama prefectures.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum opened with temperature checks at its entrance and urged visitors to practice social distancing. Kobe Oji Zoo in Hyogo Prefecture opened its gates, with about 10 security guards stationed around the enclosure of popular giant panda Tan Tan to prevent crowding.
In southwestern Japan, Kumamoto Castle, currently undergoing reconstruction work after massive earthquakes in 2016, welcomed residents of Kumamoto Prefecture with a newly constructed passage. It plans to accept other visitors from 19 June when a request for people to avoid crossing prefectural borders ends.
On Monday, the Imperial Household Agency said it will reopen the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace grounds to the public from Tuesday after a closure of around two months. It will limit the number of visitors to 50 each in the morning and afternoon, and ask them to wear face masks as a measure against the coronavirus.
- Three Japanese megabanks and cashless payment providers plan to set up a consortium this month in a bid to streamline and interoperate their services, a project that could evolve into the introduction of the “digital yen” envisaged by the Bank of Japan, sources close to the matter said Wednesday.While a number of cashless payment services such as IC cards issued by railway operators and smartphone applications are widely available in Japan, participants are expected to study measures to boost their services to make them more convenient for customers. They are also looking into the possibility of facilitating the introduction of the digital yen, for which the BOJ has started feasibility studies with the European Central Bank and other central banks, the sources said.
The consortium will include Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc., Mizuho Financial Group Inc., Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group Inc., East Japan Railway Co., the issuer of the Suica IC passenger card that is also used for cashless payment, and mobile phone service operator KDDI Corp.
The BOJ, the Financial Services Agency and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will participate as observers, according to the sources. The consortium plans to draw up proposals in the autumn and present them to the government and the BOJ, they said.
- Current and former students of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies have launched a website in 13 languages to help foreigners in Japan stay abreast of information on the coronavirus pandemic, including from the authorities.A team of some 70 volunteers translates information released by the central government and local authorities in the Tokyo metropolitan region, as well as coronavirus news coverage by Japanese media. The website is https://covid19-tagengo.com/.
The 13 languages are Japanese, English, simplified and traditional Chinese, Korean, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Indonesian. The project team members hope the website will help ease the anxiety of foreign residents and be a step toward building a more inclusive society.
“It is really stressful for them not to be able to get sufficient information vital to their lives and daily living,” said project team member Toru Ishii, 24, who majored in French at the university before graduating in March. He recalled being asked for advice by a friend from overseas who faced student visa problems as the virus that causes the COVID-19 respiratory disease spread.
“I came to realize that governments only have limited manpower” to disseminate necessary information, Ishii said. He and his friends launched the website on 21 April to deliver crucial information including basic hygiene tips to avoid infection and explanations of immigration issues, available financial assistance, and support resources.
Since then, the team has received numerous inquiries from foreign residents on such issues as difficulties their children face in online classes provided by their schools and procedures to follow if they suspect they are infected with the virus.
The university in Tokyo, which offers about 30 language courses, accepts many international students. It also sends its Japanese students abroad for study. “Just operating this website is not our goal. We’d like to help build a society which pays attention to foreigners especially in an emergency like this,” Ishii said, expressing his belief that the epidemic has shed light on the failure of Japanese society to provide enough support to minority residents.