Funabashi Haruo comments on the production and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Japan.
Vaccinations are progressing. At this rate, it seems we will reach Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s first goal of having all senior citizens vaccinated by the end of July. Recently, we haven’t seen signs of the number of infected persons decreasing with what is considered the fifth wave, but there has been a sharp decrease in infections among senior citizens and the effects of the vaccine are clear. At the same time, it has been pointed out there is a possibility of some confusion and delays, as some local governments are faced with re-evaluating their stance on vaccinations due to supply constraints, but it is expected that vaccines will reach all residents who wish to be vaccinated in two or three months and that Japan will turn towards the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has been a chance for us to think about many things, but I would like to bring up two points related to the vaccines in this paper.
The first point is about why Japan wasn’t able to develop and use domestically-produced vaccines. Major countries in the world—the United States, China, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, etc.—completed their own vaccines quickly and even if they were not all to the same level of completion (or safety), they used these vaccines to vaccinate residents of their respective countries. And in places where vaccination has progressed, they are starting to return to everyday life as it was prior to COVID-19. There are many reasons given for the discrepancy between these countries and Japan. Lack of a central command for infection prevention measures like the CDC in the United States, pharmaceutical screening that is devoted to safety so much so that it is excessively cautious with vaccines and more, lack of financial support for pharmaceutical companies, and as Japan initially was able to relatively constrain the virus, the country wasn’t able to secure enough people to perform clinical trials. In addition to this, I also believe that another major issue is the recent state of shareholder sovereignty in corporate management. That is, focusing too much on near-term profit and share price makes it hard for management to think about how their company should be in the medium to long term. Pharmaceutical companies each have corporate philosophies and slogans that make declarations, such as “Better Health, Brighter Future” (Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited) and “For the benefit of the medical community and human health around the world” (Chugai Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd.), but to what extent has the management of these companies put these philosophies into practice? As far as I know, the president of Shionogi & Co., Ltd. is alone in declaring that “domestic vaccine development is the mission of pharmaceutical companies,” and they will begin implementing this mission by the end of this year.
“To go beyond is the same as to fall short” (The Analects of Confucius). The people responsible for inspiring this trend of shareholder sovereignty should be held accountable, including regulatory authorities, the academic world, and mass media.
At the same time, the government’s vaccination policies are the complete opposite of this and have become “To go beyond is the same as to fall short” in the same way. The “go beyond” part refers to the fact that the allocation method for vaccines was distributed too equally; that is, it was bound by a socialistic idea. Measures against COVID-19 are a battle against the virus that causes COVID-19. While at war, we must respect “stupid haste” and utilize “energy” (Sun Tzu’s The Art of War). If we take this approach, it becomes clear that we won’t win the battle with the concept of prioritizing the equal distribution of vaccines to local governments across the country. The government should have deployed the soldiers (the vaccine) to the battlefield (the greater Tokyo area, the Kansai region, etc.). Because the government was not ready for this, the battle is gradually dragging on and has perhaps allowed the enemy (the coronavirus) to gain momentum (the delta variant).
This pandemic is occurring exactly 100 years since the Spanish flu. We say that disasters strike when least expected, but I hope we can prepare for the future by adequately examining our response to this pandemic and the state of corporations and governments. “To go beyond is the same as to fall short” will be a key phrase when doing so.
FUNABASHI Haruo is a historian and CEO of the Sirius Institute Inc.