Photo/Illutration An electron microscope photo of the coronavirus released by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Provided by Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention)

The government says it is working on getting a COVID-19 vaccine ready to administer in the first half of 2021 and hopes there will be enough to vaccinate all Japanese citizens by then.

The plan is to not only commission its development to domestic research entities, universities and pharmaceutical companies, but also to enter into contracts with multiple foreign drug makers. Since the continuation of socio-economic activities hinges on the development and distribution of a vaccine, we want all parties concerned to spare no effort.

And there are no excuses for taking shortcuts in the evaluation of the effectiveness and safety of their products. 

Many of the vaccines currently under development are "gene vaccines" that utilize partial genetic information about the virus and are based on a new technology that has yet to be put to practical application. As such, they are said to raise the risk of infection or aggravation of the disease.

Rushing to get results on a tight schedule and harming the health of many people would be the worst possible scenario.

The Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency, an independent administrative corporation that screens drugs, asserted on Sept. 2 that even vaccines that have been clinically tested overseas and proven effective must still undergo clinical trials in Japan.

That was a perfectly reasonable point, given that the nature of a virus or a vaccine may well vary according to the region or the ethnicity of the people infected. 

For the government to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, what standard must the drug clear and what are the limits of its acceptable side effects?

It is crucial that the government explain these matters clearly to the public for thorough, open discussions and strive to build a consensus. 

We also point out that it will not be possible to keep tabs on and evaluate every single side effect of the vaccine that becomes apparent in clinical trials. This underscores the need to have a system in place that enables swift access to all vital data from abroad.

Generally speaking, a vaccine is effective for protecting the receiver not only from contracting a disease, but also from developing symptoms or becoming severely ill from the disease. 

However, it is said that no effective vaccine has been commercialized to date for viruses that cause pneumonia. For this reason, the government's COVID-19 response subcommittee is warning the public against undue optimism.

With regard to Avigan (Favipiravir), an antiviral medication made in Japan to treat influenza and considered a promising COVID-19 medicine, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said back in May that he was pushing to get the drug approved before the end of the month.

He noted at the time, "(Avigan) has been administered in nearly 3,000 cases so far, and the reports I have received are positive."

But as matters stand today, Avigan's effectiveness has yet to be fully confirmed by clinical testing.

We strongly object to any politician making this sort of premature pronouncement.

There are still many questions and issues on which society's shared understanding is needed. For example, what categories of people should be on the short list for vaccine recipients while the drug is still in limited supply? And if the vaccine's side effects damages people's health, how should the victims be compensated?

Discussion of these issues must be deepened first from the public's perspective, not that of the government and drug makers.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 6