Vaccines: Japan is catching up on biotech

I was very happy to read in the Yomiuri Shimbun that major Japanese pharmaceutical makers are active again to manufacture vaccines in Japan. The challenge is that production costs are higher compared to other medical products and so far vaccines have primarily been produced by small and midsized manufacturers. You might be wondering why I am excited. For example last year when a new strain of influenza spread around the world, the Japanese government had no choice but to import a large amount of new flu vaccines, because most likely it would be difficult to procure enough from domestic drugmakers. As a consequence now the government decided to take measures to strengthen domestic production of vaccines.
Now the next steps in the market can be seen, when Astellas Pharma Inc. reached an agreement with UMN Pharma Inc. for providing its influenza vaccine technology to Astellas Pharma. This agreement will allow Astellas to develop and market new vaccines. Further Daiichi Sankyo Co. approached the Kitasato Institute to establish a joint venture firm to produce and sell vaccines. Last but not least Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. as the nation’s largest drugmaker has planned to expand its operations of producing vaccines.
But this is just a part of the happy news. More important is that the production method will shift to cell cultivation method. So far the conventional method using eggs would require 18 months to two years to produce influenza vaccines for all Japanese nationals according to Yomiuri Shimbun. Cell cultivation method on the other hand can shorten the period to about six months.
Actually Japan had been one of the most advanced countries in vaccines until the 1980s. Previously Japanese technologies and high quality of the vaccines were once known worldwide. Then a couple of lawsuits were filed over side effects of the so-called triple vaccine for measles, rubella and mumps. To make the situation worse, the demand for vaccines fluctuates every year depending on outbreak of infectious diseases, therefore the disposal of the unsused surplus vaccines cost a lot of money. These factors have made Japanese pharmaceutical makers reluctant to develop and market vaccines.
I truly hope that Japan gets back on track again. Just consider that according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry the United States introduced 20 new vaccines between 1990 and 2008, while Japan launched only four during the same period. I strongly believe Japan has so many forgotten capabilities、 which are worthwhile to strengthen again.

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (シビル伊藤)

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