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Japan prepares for sixth wave as Kishida rolls out pandemic policy package

Japan is gearing up for a sixth wave of COVID-19, with the central government looking to roll out a bundle of new policies on Friday before winter begins.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday introduced a major policy package — his first since he was reappointed earlier this week — aimed at bolstering the country’s hospital capacity, expanding its vaccine campaign and advancing the treatment and testing of those infected with the virus.

“Pandemic response will remain our top priority,” Kishida said during a news conference Wednesday evening. “A comprehensive plan will be drawn up and announced to the public by the end of the week.”

The execution and impact of these proposals, which will be finalized Friday, could decide the fate of the new administration’s attempts to reopen the economy amid the ever-present threat of future waves.

Hospital capacity

The central government plans to raise hospital capacity by the end of November to accommodate more than 35,000 coronavirus patients at once, a figure 30% higher than the 28,000 patients the country saw in August.

During the fifth wave in the summer, designated hospitals and medical facilities were overwhelmed by a record-breaking surge of patients with symptoms of varying degrees of severity. In early August, then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga tried to alleviate the pressure by directing moderately ill COVID-19 patients to isolate at home, but the contentious move all but shifted pressure onto the shoulders of public health centers, which determine which patients go where, and the at-home doctors and nurses treating those patients.

Oxygen stations and other temporary facilities provided a staging ground for COVID-19 patients awaiting hospitalization to receive critical treatment, but those weren’t established until after the fifth wave was well under way.

Kishida on Wednesday said he plans to increase facilities to provide treatment for mildly ill COVID-19 patients to more than 10,000 rooms, or 20% more than this summer.

Vaccines

The policies proposed Wednesday included a plan to provide vaccines to children between ages 5 and 11. At present, those age 12 and older are eligible to get vaccinated, though availability and safety concerns remain an issue for many parents.

Japan will also begin administering Pfizer Inc.’s COVID-19 vaccine booster to medical personnel from December, after the health ministry on Thursday approved the shot for people age 18 and older.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks in a news conference on Wednesday night. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks in a news conference on Wednesday night. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

A growing amount of research shows that antibodies against COVID-19 decrease over time and, as such, boosters are necessary in the long term to protect the population against the disease.

While numbers vary, most research suggests that booster shots should be taken six months after the initial doses. In Japan, booster shots are expected to be administered eight months after the second shot.

The periodic need for supplementary doses implies that COVID-19 vaccination could be needed every year, like a flu shot.

Japan has not approved booster shots for people between 12 and 17 years of age due to a lack of health and safety data, but older people who have received both initial doses of the Pfizer vaccine will become eligible for booster shots in January after medical personnel and health care workers. The health ministry is planning to discuss whether to approve Moderna Inc.’s booster shots in late December, with an eye to start administering the extra doses in February.

Japan has secured 120 million doses from Pfizer and 50 million boosters from Moderna for the new year. The country is looking to secure 150 million doses of a vaccine by U.S. pharmaceutical firm Novavax Inc. by early 2022.

Emerging treatments

Kishida also announced Wednesday that his administration aims to provide 1.6 million doses of molnupiravir, an oral COVID-19 drug that Japan hopes to approve by the end of the year, to hospitals and other medical facilities.

If approved, the oral drug would be the first of its kind used in Japan to combat COVID-19.

Molnupiravir, which was developed by American companies Merck & Co. and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, reduced the risk of death by roughly half for mildly or moderately ill COVID-19 patients during clinical trials in Japan and the United States.

Merck has said it has reached a $1.2 billion deal with Japan to supply the drug, and will apply for approval shortly.

Virus testing

The central government plans to provide COVID-19 tests — both antigen and PCR tests — free of charge when cases are rising to people even if they don’t have symptoms.

Japan’s low testing has garnered domestic and international criticism on many occasions since the beginning of the pandemic.

Owing to the nature of the virus, a large number of those infected with COVID-19 don’t show symptoms, with experts saying a majority of cases go undetected. In many ways, detecting the virus is the hardest part.

Previously, PCR tests were free for people suffering telltale symptoms or individuals who had been in close contact with someone infected. In other words, doctors and public health center officials had to give their consent for a person to get a PCR test for free.

The proliferation of the delta variant, which is thought to be twice as contagious as the original strain of the coronavirus, caused record daily cases in the fifth wave.

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