Japan’s lack of infectious diseases research exposed by COVID-19 pandemic

Japan’s government has drawn criticism from some of the nation’s researchers following a new analysis that shows Japan has for years been lagging in the field of infectious diseases research, including after the COVID-19 pandemic had hit.

Despite performing relatively well in managing the pandemic, analysis by research technology company Digital Science shows Japan has lost its research edge in infectious diseases.

A number of Japan’s infectious diseases researchers – including those who’ve worked with the government on measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19 – say the data confirms what they’ve known for some time.

The data – sourced from the Dimensions database of 130 million publications and journals included in the Nature Index – shows that although Japan has a strong international standing across all fields of research (ranked 5th in the world for all research articles in Dimensions for 2019-2021), it lags well behind on infectious diseases (12th in the world for all infectious diseases research articles in Dimensions for 2019-2021).

While China, the UK and Germany have surged ahead when it comes to the output of research across 90 different infectious diseases in Nature Index journals (tracked in Dimensions), Japan has fallen behind the likes of Switzerland and The Netherlands. Japan has also failed to match the huge spikes in coronavirus-related research seen in other major industrialized countries such as the US.

When it comes to the number of patents established for vaccines, Japan is also lagging: 11th place in the world for COVID-19 patents recorded from 2020-2021, according to data in Dimensions – behind countries such as South Korea, India, Canada and France.

For more figures and charts, see the full blog post.

Dr Norio Ohmagari, Director of Disease Control and Prevention at Japan’s National Center for Global Health and Medicine (NCGM), says he is not surprised to learn that the data shows Japan lagging on infectious diseases research.

“There is little interest in infectious diseases in Japanese medical research,” says Dr Ohmagari, who is also Head of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Prevention, Preparedness and Response to Emerging Infectious Diseases.

“I have been an independent infectious disease physician for 18 years now. During this time, however, infectious disease research has been at a low ebb. The development of new drugs has gradually declined in activity.”

Professor Makoto Suematsu, Dean of the School of Medicine at Keio University, one of Japan’s research hospital universities, describes the hierarchy of Japanese research interests as: “Cancer is king, and the genome is queen. Infectious disease is just a pathogen.”

He says because Japan is suffering from an ageing population, the budget has increased in that direction accordingly. “The budget for the elderly is huge – imagine it is a watermelon and one seed is the budget for infectious diseases research,” Professor Suematsu says.

“We’ve failed to create any effective vaccine so far,” says Professor Hiroaki Kitano, President & CEO of Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc. and Professor at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate School (OIST), a leading researcher who was actively involved in the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Japan.

“Japan used to be at the forefront of vaccination; we had a very strong vaccination program, and very strong companies that would create vaccinations. Many companies have actually withdrawn from the vaccine business, so that has substantially reduced the capability for manufacturing and quick response.”

Professor Masanori Fukushima, Representative Director of the Learning Health Society Institute (LHSI) and Professor Emeritus at Kyoto University, raises a further issue: the pandemic could have enabled Japanese researchers to better understand the impact on patients, but due to a lack of access to patients at research hospitals this hasn’t been possible on a large scale.

“Patients admitted to university hospitals are referred from other hospitals, seriously ill, and typically emergency cases, making it difficult for university hospitals to establish a system for continuous research on them,” he says.

For the full story – including comments from researchers in which they praise Japan’s response to the pandemic – see the blog post.