National

An architect of Japan’s virus strategy sees flaws in West’s approach at fighting the pandemic

by Gearoid Reidy

Bloomberg

One of the key architects of Japan’s coronavirus strategy has hailed the country’s response to the pandemic, saying its approach was more effective than those implemented by Western nations.

"Data clearly indicates that the measures taken by Japan have been more effective than those taken in Western countries,” Hitoshi Oshitani, a professor of virology at Tohoku University and a member of the expert panel advising the government, said in an interview with Diplomacy, a journal published by the country’s Foreign Ministry.

Western countries became involved in a "war of attrition” of tracking down each individual case of the virus to thoroughly eliminate them, Oshitani said. Japan, on the other hand, allowed some degree of transmission of the virus and focused instead on identifying clusters of infection. This avoided exhausting the testing and medical system but was effective in eliminating large-scale transmission, he said in the interview, which was released in Japanese earlier this month.

Oshitani’s remarks come despite domestic dissatisfaction with the handling of the outbreak, and as Tokyo is yet to fully reopen its economy after ending the state of emergency. While cases and deaths in Japan are lower than Group of Seven peers, its performance still trails that of several other Asia Pacific nations — including neighbor Taiwan, which saw just seven deaths from the disease, and New Zealand, which on Tuesday declared the virus eliminated. Japan had 17,210 cases and 916 deaths as of Tuesday, according to data from the Health Ministry.

Noting the success other Asian countries have had with varying strategies, a "one-size fits all” approach where Western countries create guidelines on infectious diseases for lower-income countries — with the WHO acting as the intermediary — no longer makes sense, according to Oshitani.

Japan allowed a second wave of infections to develop by letting in an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 carriers of the virus from Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere before travel restrictions were implemented at the end of March, Oshitani said. The delay was "regrettable,” he said, despite having quashed the first wave of the disease which stemmed from China. Oshitani acknowledged Japan failed to meet a target of keeping deaths below 100, and said it is now focusing on keeping them below 1,000.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe touted what he called a "Japan model” to tackling the coronavirus when he declared an end to the state of emergency in May. Citizens and businesses are slowly trying to resume a sense of normality, with new cases of the virus dropping to zero in many parts of the country. A warning that was triggered in Tokyo following an uptick of cases last week may soon be lifted after cases began to fall again.

Japan took a controversial approach to the call from the World Health Organization to "test, test, test,” — its total testing rate remains one of the lowest in the world. This has met with criticism both domestically, from those who couldn’t get checked for the disease, and from other countries, with the German embassy in Tokyo at one point warning its citizens that Japan didn’t know the true scale of the infection due to its testing approach.

But Oshitani defended the country’s stance, saying that deliberately limiting access to PCR tests was a key reason for success. During the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009, a rush of people cramming into clinics to get tested created breeding grounds for the virus to circulate in waiting rooms. Oshitani questioned the quality of PCR test kits used in the U.S. that were "prematurely” approved, and PCR primer reported by China had low accuracy, he said.

In the wide-ranging interview, Oshitani also dismissed the concept of herd immunity as "nonsense,” said it was "impossible” to completely eliminate the virus and called for Japan to change how society works to avoid a resurgence of the pandemic. The next threat would be from another influenza pandemic for which no one has immunity, with infectivity no match to the coronavirus — a reality that could occur "at any moment.”

Oshitani also cast doubt on the future of a globalized world.

"An efficient world that prioritizes economic efficiency, is extremely vulnerable to infectious diseases,” he said. "We are now being challenged whether we want to return to such a vulnerable world even after COVID-19.”

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