Nobel laureate says central command a must to beat pandemics

TOKYO — The COVID-19 pandemic shows just how ill-prepared Japan is to handle a medical crisis, Nobel Prize-winning immunologist Tasuku Honjo told Nikkei.

The Kyoto University professor won the award in physiology or medicine with former University of California researcher James Allison in 2018 for groundbreaking contributions to cancer therapy. In a recent interview, Honjo likened outbreak response to war and urged a stronger link between science and policy.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What are your thoughts on the current coronavirus pandemic?

A: This is an extraordinary emergency and a great challenge for Japan. Many lives have been lost, and the global economy has taken a tremendous hit. The key is how we can minimize the impact. It’s like we’re stuck in the mud, so we need to think hard about how we can escape it. It will be a competition of which countries can quickly end the crisis, and to do that, we need to get infections under control. We want to avoid a surge in patients and a resulting collapse of the health care system.

People are panicking because they could die. We need a treatment in order to reduce casualties, so we should take advantage of research from China and actively use medications that are recommended for use with the virus. The government should take extralegal measures to have insurance cover such treatments.

Q: What challenges does Japan face specifically?

A: Responding to an outbreak is a little like war. You need to take control of social systems in an emergency and respond with firm authority. Experts need to make policy recommendations before disaster hits, and the government needs put them into action, but Japan doesn’t do this.

There needs to be an organization like the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. that is constantly monitoring the situation and links research and policy. It’s not ideal that we don’t have a defense force for medical emergencies.

The current outbreak has shown how behind we are in our information technology strategy and how socially unprepared we are. Taiwan’s response is a good example for us. Each citizen there has a unique ID number that’s also linked to their medical information. Online classes also help students feel like they’re getting one-on-one attention from their teachers, and are better than being isolated in a 40-student classroom. We should be promoting online learning.

Q: Why have medical advances been unable to eradicate infectious diseases?

A: Medicine has evolved dramatically even compared with 20 years ago, but every new virus requires a new response. Physics and chemistry have established principles, but biology is a science that’s still developing, and there’s so much we still don’t know. So one novel virus can turn the world on its head. Many people probably wonder why, but that’s just the reality.

Infectious diseases are completely different from something like cancer. Infectious diseases can spread quickly to a large number of patients. Meanwhile, incidence and survival rates for cancer largely stay constant, and expertise in the area is growing steadily.

Research into infectious diseases needs to go hand in hand with immunology. There’s no point in looking only at the virus, and we need to know how people battling the virus respond to it.

Q: What will the post-coronavirus world look like?

A: We can’t halt the movements of people forever just because of the new-coronavirus pandemic. I don’t expect the outbreak to reverse the tide of globalization.

China will have a big role to play. The illness originated in China, but the country will be the first to recover from it, too. I can’t say whether this will boost Chinese influence or whether the world will shun China, but there’s a possibility that the global order shifts over the outbreak.

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