OSAKA - Despite assurances by the Japanese government that it stands ready to tackle an Ebola outbreak, a lack of facilities to handle the virus suggests such assertions may be overly optimistic.
As of last Sunday, the hemorrhagic virus had killed more than 4,400 people worldwide, and nearly 9,000 were known to be infected, mostly in West Africa, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With fears growing of an international pandemic, Japan is taking administrative steps to strengthen its response. The government has introduced a bill in the Diet that would give local governments greater power to require patients with infectious diseases to submit samples for Ebola testing.
Forty-seven hospitals and medical facilities nationwide, including facilities near Narita and Kansai airports, are “designated” as infectious disease treatment centers, so Ebola patients would likely be sent there. But Japan does not have any facilities with the required biosafety level to handle the deadly disease, according to CDC guidelines.
Ebola should only be handled in biosafety Level 4 facilities, where protective positive pressure suits must be worn and the rooms are constructed in a way that ensures the virus cannot escape. But there are fewer than 30 Level 4 facilities worldwide, and none in Japan.
In March, the Science Council of Japan called on the government to build Level 4 facilities and to fund the training of personnel who can handle equivalent-level viruses and toxic agents.
In fact, Japan in the 1980s built two facilities with Level 4 operating potential — one in a branch office of the National Center of Infectious Diseases in the western Tokyo city of Higashimurayama, near Tokorozawa, and the other at a facility in the Riken institute in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture. But, poorly equipped by today’s standards, they remain unable to operate as Level 4 labs because of strong opposition from worried residents.
The council made four recommendations. First, it urged the government to build Level 4 facilities to isolate and examine infectious diseases.
Second, it said Japan should build new facilities to research and develop vaccines, conduct testing on animals and develop antidotes.
It also recommended distributing such facilities around the country to reduce the risk of everything being lost in a natural disaster.
Finally, the council emphasized the importance of public relations and of protecting residents.
Despite the Ebola crisis, the council’s March recommendations have not been adopted yet by the government.
That could now change, given the new bill in the Diet.
“As of October, the members of the group that made those recommendations have changed. But concern about Ebola is very high, so it’s possible the report’s recommendations will be taken up in Diet discussions,” said Takahiro Ito, a spokesman for the council.
Building such facilities is little comfort in the short term. There is no cure or guaranteed effective treatment for the disease, which can have a mortality rate up to 80 percent.
Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry said Thursday that hundreds of Japanese troops engaged in U.N. peacekeeping operations in South Sudan are collecting local data on the Ebola outbreaks.No Ebola cases have been confirmed yet in South Sudan, but the ministry is aware of the separate Ebola outbreak underway in the adjacent Democratic Republic of Congo, noting that the Self-Defense Forces have not taken any special measures yet.
About 400 SDF engineering troops are in Juba, the capital, but it is unknown how much contact they have with local residents.
In the meantime, Avigan, an experimental drug developed by FujiFilm Group company Toyama Chemical Co. Ltd., was recently used on a French nurse with Ebola who then recovered. Avigan has received much attention domestically and overseas, and the company says the governments of France and Guinea are considering conducting clinical trials of it next month. At the same time, the Japanese government says it will provide drugs developed by companies that could prove effective against Ebola.
In the event of an outbreak in Japan, the company says it is ready to assist if asked.
With 30 airports and over 120 ports with customs offices where the disease would most likely enter, dispensing Avigan or any other treatment quickly would be a top priority.
“There are more than 20,000 Avigan tablets in storage,” said FujiFilm spokesman Shinya Hiroshima.
Staff writer Masaaki Kameda contributed to this story.