After acknowledging Japan was slow to develop COVID-19 vaccines, the government has pledged to invest $2 billion in a vaccine research initiative to ensure the country is ready to respond. quickly to future epidemics.
The Strategic Research and Development Center for Advanced Biomedical Vaccines for Preparedness and Response (SCARDA) will initially invest in vaccine research for eight pathogens, including coronaviruses, monkeypox, dengue virus and Zika virus, using a range of technologies for vaccine delivery, such as mRNA technology, viral vectors and recombinant proteins.
Japan has been “too slow to catch up” with the rest of the world in making COVID-19 vaccines, says Ken Ishii, a University of Tokyo vaccinologist who is also part of SCARDA’s selected central research center. The country’s three most advanced COVID-19 vaccine candidates are still in late-stage clinical trials and none are approved for use.
In recognition of this delay, the Japanese government established SCARDA in March; the center will be officially launched in November, says Ishii. The government has realized that vaccine development is complicated and requires resources, and has given the field a boost, says Toshihiro Horii, a vaccinologist at Osaka University. “It’s a huge amount of money,” he says.
The initiative will bring together researchers from across Japan, says Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the University of Tokyo and director of SCARDA’s central research center. “It’s unique, at least for Japan.”
Hundred day goal
SCARDA’s goal will be to produce diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines ready for mass production within the first 100 days of the identification of a pathogen with pandemic potential. The 100-day mission was first proposed by the UK in 2021 and supported by the other countries in the G7 group of wealthy nations. Similar initiatives include the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA); it coordinates the development of vaccines, drugs and diagnostics in response to public health emergencies, including pandemics, and has invested in several COVID-19 vaccines.
“Since SCARDA is a new organization, it has a lot to learn from BARDA,” and other vaccine funding initiatives such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, says Michinari Hamaguchi, chief executive of SCARDA.
Two of SCARDA’s first approved projects aim to develop universal coronavirus vaccines and vaccines against a group of coronaviruses linked to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), such as SARS-CoV-2. Another project will create an accelerated system for evaluating candidate vaccines.
The Japan Center will operate with approximately 30 staff members and funding for a 5-year term. Of the $2 billion allocated, $1.2 billion will go to vaccine research and development projects, and $400 million will be used to support start-ups in drug development. An additional $400 million will be spent to set up a virtual network of centers of excellence for basic research in vaccine science and to test candidate vaccines in early trials. The goal is “to find seeds for future vaccines,” says Kawaoka.
In addition to the Tokyo-based central research center, there will be four main institutes – Osaka University, Nagasaki University, Hokkaido University and Chiba University. Five other institutions will provide support services such as animal models.
Horii, who is leading several malaria clinical trials and is not involved in SCARDA, says the current bottleneck in vaccine development in Japan is translating research into clinical practice. SCARDA will have to go beyond basic science to develop expertise in taking candidate vaccines through clinical trials, he says. “We have many vaccinologists in Japan, but the majority of them are basic researchers.”