Japan is late bloomer in race to develop COVID vaccine

Researchers say Japan’s slow development of a vaccine against COVID-19 is linked to decades of stagnant public funding for universities resulting from government slashing overall higher education and research budgets to cope with dwindling national revenue.

But the pandemic reversed the situation last year when government grants were expanded to support new projects that are collaborations between universities and drug companies.

“Japan is a late bloomer in the fight to develop a domestic vaccine. But with new public grants extended to researchers, there are breakthroughs for a domestic product that will improve the safety and efficiency of currently available vaccines,” explained Dr Naoto Uemura, head of clinical pharmacology at Oita University Hospital.

Uemura belongs to a new vaccine development supported by the government’s main funding arm, the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development. The project is the driving force for the next generation vaccines and is a collaboration of researchers, public health institutions and drug companies to develop a safe and reliable product.

The project is headed by researcher Dr Wataru Akahata, who is the CEO of VLP Therapeutics Japan, a company founded in 2013 to develop vaccines for infectious diseases and cancer. At a recent press conference, he explained that the key feature of the new product is its self-amplifying RNA format and its low antigen dosages – 1-10 micrograms to produce an effective immune response.

“The smaller doses of antigens can immunise larger numbers of people in comparison to the currently available vaccines and can sustain the immunity for three years,” Dr Akahata explained at a recent press briefing. The team expects phase one to be initiated this year and approval in 2022.

In contrast, he explained that the vaccine from American pharmaceutical and biotechnology company Moderna, which uses mRNA technology, requires 100 micrograms injected in two doses.

The AstraZeneca vaccine, now grappling with international criticism, has also yet to be approved in Japan.

“COVID-19 has taught Japan the important lesson that vaccines are crucial to the containment of future virus outbreaks,” Akahata said.

VLP Therapeutics is composed of experts of diverse backgrounds including experts on epidemiology and infectious diseases. Dr Akahata is also working in the United States to develop new vaccines against infectious diseases such as Dengue fever and Chikungunya fever.

The project’s main partners include the medical units of Hokkaido University, Osaka City University, Nagoya Medical Center in the preclinical patient data collection; Oita University in phase one clinical trials; and Osaka City University and the National Center for Global Health and Medicine in phase two. Fujifilm, a leading Japanese company, will be involved in the manufacturing stage of the vaccine.

“My dream is the production of a Japanese-made vaccine,” said immunologist Takuya Yamamoto from the National Institutes of Biomedical Innovation, Health and Nutrition, another team member.

Sudden increase in grants

The sudden increase in public grants last year has also resulted in other ventures that have strengthened new collaborations between researchers and drug-makers. Recipients such as pharmaceutical firms KM Biologics Company and Daiichi Sankyo Co have started clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines.

KM Biologics received a JPY6.1 billion (US$55 million) grant to prepare a production line by the end of March 2022 that would support the manufacture of 35 million vaccines in six months. The company is a unit of Meiji Holdings Co, a leading Japanese company producing pharmaceuticals and other goods.

The collaboration provides a platform not only for private investment to stimulate funds but also diverse expertise in clinical and safety research and infrastructure such as laboratories and patients.

Professor Yasutoshi Kido, professor at the Graduate School of Medicine, Osaka City University and a member of the new VLP vaccine development project, explained that the recent rush of research projects has raised the profile of new opportunities in Japan’s biotech environment.

“The ongoing collaborative projects between researchers and the private sector are setting the norm for Japan’s future response to pandemics,” he said.

Kido envisages increases in public grants that will support joint ventures between universities and investors.

Dr Uemura is also the key researcher at ARTham Therapeutics, a virtual R&D company comprised of academic and business partners and pursuing low-cost drug repurposing investigations in collaboration with Oita University.

Founding members consist of leaders with global scientific and management experience, Dr Sham Nikam, Dr Hiroshi Nagabukuro and Akira Tanaka (senior director). The company focuses on drug and treatment research for rare diseases.

Dr Nagabukuro, a scientist, describes the company as having unique relations with universities in Japan, where the concept is still emerging. For example, the company is certified with Oita University and he is part of the faculty – he teaches a biotech course to graduate students.

“Compared to similar projects in the United States, collaborative projects between universities face slow investor interest. The prediction is sober in Japan’s biotech environment, where goals are commonly focused on domestic markets,” Nagabukuro told University World News.