Twenty-Third Business Advisory Board Meeting Discusses Global COVID-19 Response

On April 12, the 23rd U.S.-Japan Council Business Advisory Board (BAB) Meeting was held online, featuring Dr. Kenji Shibuya (Professor and Director, University Institute for Population Health, King’s College London) as the keynote speaker. Over 40 industry leaders from diverse fields gathered to listen to his speech, titled “Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons from Japan and Abroad.”

Dr. Shibuya sharing his observations and insights on the COVID-19 responses in Japan

The event began with opening remarks by USJC Board Member Scott Sato, followed by remarks from Masaaki Tanaka, Chairman of the Business Advisory Board and Vice Chair of the USJC Board of Councilors. Representative Director of the USJC (Japan) Board of Directors Royanne Doi provided updates on recent USJC activities.

Dr. Shibuya opened his keynote address by carefully assessing the COVID-19 responses in the United Kingdom and in Japan, drawing comparisons against other countries including the United States. Making comparative analysis of various research findings and scientific publications around COVID-19, he stated that Japan is following in the footsteps of the UK with a lag of two to three months and that there are lessons to be learned from their experiences. 

Dr. Shibuya then discussed the three fundamental approaches to infection control. The first approach is to break transmission chains through the practices of mask-wearing, hand hygiene, physical distancing, and avoidance of the “Three Cs” (closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings). Dr. Shibuya noted that this approach has been Japan’s primary focus, and the country’s relative success in preventing an explosive outbreak in early stages heavily relied on the public’s efforts in that area. In addition, mass testing that leads to early detection and isolation of the source of infection has been proven to be effective in different parts of the world. Mass testing is crucial, especially in the case of COVID-19, to suppress its asymptomatic transmission, according to Dr. Shibuya. Finally, increasing host immunity through vaccination is the key to containing infection. Although there are structural and historical reasons for Japan’s slow vaccine rollout, some of which call for long-term strategies to be implemented, Dr. Shibuya emphasized the importance of the government advocating for the safety and efficacy of the vaccines in order to tackle vaccine hesitancy in Japan. He pointed out that it is essential for Japan to shift its focus to the second and third approaches through mass testing and vaccination as seen in the successful cases of other countries, including the United Kingdom. 

Dr. Shibuya (top left) with USJC leaders and BAB attendees, including TOMODACHI alumni

Dr. Shibuya also shared his observations on the challenging nature of herd immunity against COVID-19 due to several factors that require further research on vaccine effectiveness, the spread of new variants and the impact of public health interventions and human behaviors. As opposed to the current “With-COVID” approach which mitigates the transmission of coronavirus, Dr. Shibuya recommended that Japan shift its focus to a “Zero-COVID” approach as its exit strategy – this approach would aim to eliminate the virus. According to Dr. Shibuya, accountable political leadership, clear communication and transparent decision-making based on scientific evidence will be the key to containing the resurgence and to resume social and economic activities in Japan.

Following the talk, Dr. Shibuya received questions from the audience, including TOMODACHI alumni. The meeting concluded with a Q&A and networking session in which they further discussed various topics such as shortfalls in the ongoing responses, the independence of the scientific community, and the pharmaceutical industry in Japan.