Residents living near a proposed storage facility in a western Tokyo suburb are upset at a health ministry plan to import viruses that cause deadly infectious diseases, including Ebola hemorrhagic fever, for the first time.
They expressed opposition at a public hearing held by the ministry on Nov. 15.
The viruses would be studied for measures to prevent a major outbreak ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“It is nonsense for the government to tell us to accept the plan because of the Olympics,” said a representative of the Raizuka residents’ association who lives near the storage facility of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID)’s Murayama Branch Laboratories. “We are worried and cannot accept it.”
Chihiro Sasakawa, director of the Medical Mycology Research Center at Chiba University, who participated in the hearing, said, “Storing viruses is necessary to make a quick and accurate diagnosis on a patient. At the same time, residents are concerned and there needs to be a dialogue conducted with respect.”
The ministry is aiming to enhance inspection system for infectious diseases before the Tokyo Olympics, when a large number of visitors from many countries and regions are expected. Using real viruses would make diagnoses more accurate and improve the inspection methods and reach the standards adopted by other advanced countries, the ministry explained.
However, the residents at the hearing remained unconvinced, and both sides could not reach an agreement.
The health ministry hopes to adopt a more rigorous inspection and detection system of Ebola and other diseases that are spread in some parts of the world by importing five types of viruses: Ebola hemorrhagic fever; Lassa fever; South American hemorrhagic fever; Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever; and Marburg disease.
Under the Infectious Diseases Control Law, they are classified as Category One, the most dangerous diseases. The law prohibits any Category One virus from being imported to Japan in general and only allows it to be managed at a “biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) facility.”
Currently, the storage facility in Musashi-Murayama is the only facility to be certified to accept the first Category One virus if imported to Japan.
Ebola became pandemic in Africa from 2014 to 2015, and viruses later entered the United States. It is flourishing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo this year, but no case has been reported in Japan so far.
(This article was written by Sokichi Kuroda and Mutsumi Mitobe.)