National

City in Tokyo approves imports of Ebola virus by research facility

JIJI

Musashimurayama Mayor Masaru Fujino informed health minister Takumi Nemoto on Monday of his approval of a plan to keep deadly viruses such as Ebola at a research facility in the city, which is located on the outskirts of Tokyo.

The viruses will be imported to the Murayama branch of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID), which can handle dangerous pathogens designated the highest biosafety level, or BSL, of 4 under the World Health Organization’s standards, as early as this summer.

The move will help strengthen Japan’s inspection system for diseases that have never spread within the country, in preparation for an expected increase in visitors from abroad ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games next summer.

At a meeting with Nemoto, Fujino made five requests, including the implementation of full safety measures, the proactive disclosure of information and future consideration for a relocation. The ministry will answer the requests in writing.

The pathogens to be imported to the facility are those related to Ebola, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, South American hemorrhagic fever, Marburg disease and Lassa fever.

All of the deadly viruses are ranked as the most dangerous under Japan’s infectious disease prevention law.

Under the law, the health minister is expected to grant the NIID approval for importing the pathogens within a few days.

To prepare for an outbreak of a dangerous disease, the NIID has adopted an inspection system involving artificially made pathogens of deadly diseases.

Actual pathogens will help improve its system for testing, sources familiar with the matter said.

The Murayama branch’s BSL4 facility was completed in 1981 and started operations in August 2015. It currently handles viruses that are a notch less dangerous than the five deadly diseases, including severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

In November last year, the NIID presented the idea of importing the deadly viruses, to improve the accuracy of its testing methods, to concerned parties, including representatives of local residents.

The NIID officially announced a virus import plan in May this year after a series of briefing sessions for local residents.

The institute judged that it had “gained understanding to some extent,” due to the lack of strong opposition.

“We place great importance on the (mayor’s) requests,” Nemoto told reporters after the meeting, adding that “we have taken a big step toward strengthening our inspection system to protect people’s lives and health.”

Fujino told reporters that he thought he had no choice but to approve the NIID’s plan.

“I want the state to implement safety measures responsibly,” he said.