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Japanese gov't pushes forward with 'vaccine & test package' despite lacking evidence

Subcommittee head Shigeru Omi holds a press conference in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Nov. 16, 2021, after a meeting of the government's subcommittee on the coronavirus response. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- A Japanese government initiative drawn up Nov. 16 to ease COVID-19 restrictions on the public's behavior has at its base a "vaccine and test package," which the government sees as an indispensable tool for striking a balance between anti-coronavirus measures and economic activity. However, the government's rush to resume socioeconomic activity stands out, which has infectious disease experts expressing concern.

    At a meeting of the government's subcommittee on the coronavirus response on Nov. 16, economic revitalization minister Daishiro Yamagiwa stressed his intention to promote the easing of coronavirus-related restrictions using the vaccine and test package, saying, "I would like to put my efforts into making reality a new normal that allows us to reduce the risk of infection while making it possible to continue economic and social activity."

    When the eased measures that the government presented to the subcommittee are applied even in the midst of a state of emergency, dining establishments and events are exempted from limiting the number of people they can allow into their eateries or venues. The package assumes that the chance is low that people who have papers to prove that they have received their coronavirus vaccines or have proof of a negative COVID-19 test could be infected with the coronavirus.

    In response to the government's easing measures, Hitoshi Oshitani, a professor of public health at Tohoku University; Shigeru Omi, the government's subcommittee chairperson; and others drew up a page-long document on the points to keep in mind regarding the package. Under the topic "Limitations of vaccines and testing," the document said, "the effect of infection prevention drops when time passes after vaccination," "there are limitations to testing, and there are cases in which tests will overlook people who are infected," and "even when using the package, infection risks remain, so a certain level of anti-infection measures are necessary."

    Furthermore, those who wrote the document said that when medical systems reach Level 3 out of five levels -- indicating the need for strong measures such as a state of emergency declaration -- deliberations should be carried out on whether to stop applying the package. One document author said, "Whether to stop using the package is the government's call, but we will tell the government what have to."

    According to those connected to the subcommittee's members who wrote the document, the members asked that the document be considered an official agenda at a subcommittee meeting, but was denied by the government. Following negotiations, they were permitted to submit the document as a reference. One source speculated, "The government probably wanted to avoid expert criticism of the vaccine and test package, which was a strong demand from the business world."

    Tetsuya Matsumoto, a professor at the International University of Health and Welfare who is well versed in infectious diseases said, "I think economic activity using the package is acceptable when the state of infections has settled down, but what's important is whether sound change in policy can be made at a time when infections are surging. Reviewing the system once the medical system is hard-pressed at Level 3, runs the risk of missing the opportunity to respond at the right time."

    As for the government's demonstration experiment, Matsumoto said, "It was unable to provide scientific corroboration to the package, and does not give the public a reason to feel at ease." He continued that carrying out follow-up experiments with a group that presents proof of vaccination and another that does not was ideal, and that "even if such an experiment cannot be conducted, there should at least be a collection of data on anti-infection measures."

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Harada, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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