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Slow pandemic response inspires Japan to build own CDC

Tokyo seeks a unified expert-driven approach modeled on US agency

 CDC headquarters is located in Atlanta, in the U.S. state of Georgia.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan's ruling party has decided to spearhead the creation of an epidemic response agency modeled on America's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after bureaucratic divisions delayed steps taken to combat the novel coronavirus.

The Liberal Democratic Party will formally recommend creating a disease agency as soon as early next month. Current authority to fight outbreaks is divided across different government agencies, which critics say hampered the country's initial response.

In March, lawmakers passed a bill granting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the power to declare a state of emergency and to form a coronavirus task force.

Launched on March 26, the body has the authority to oversee the development of testing and bolster the health care infrastructure, as well as to craft border control policies. But the task force does not have the necessary expert knowledge, critics charge.

The government has long delegated disease control research to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, an agency under the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. But the NIID has no authority to craft or carry out policies and is mainly tasked with researching remedies and vaccines, as well as training health experts.

Coronavirus responses outside of Japan has generally been devised and directed by a single controlling government agency. America's CDC employs about 13,000 around the globe and operates on a budget of around $7.8 billion. That was the body that ordered a mandatory two-week quarantine of U.S. citizens entering from Wuhan, China.

South Korea has its own Centers for Disease Control, which is empowered to make requests to any government body. This CDC operates on a budget of approximately $650 million and employs about 900 people. The agency advanced drive-though COVID-19 testing, which was instrumental in keeping the disease at bay.

Taiwan established the Central Epidemic Command Center after learning hard lessons from its response to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2003. The center executed a successful early-stage intervention against the coronavirus epidemic, resulting in confirmed deaths that remains in the single digits.

Japan's NIID operates on a budget of only 6 billion yen ($56 million) for the current fiscal year and employs 300, putting the institution behind global peers. The country has never experienced an epidemic on a scale that required a larger disease control agency.

"I support a Japanese CDC," said Mitsuru Fukuda, a professor at Nihon University who specializes in crisis management. "Without a cross-agency axis, crisis management cannot be done." 

March's emergency declaration legislation contained a supplementary resolution calling for the government to consider a crisis- management body, and pointed to a Japanese CDC as an example.

The American CDC does provide one model for creating an expert-driven organization, but that agency has encountered a firestorm of criticism for its bungled response to the coronavirus.

Some critics say the CDC's adherence to its independence has come back to haunt the agency. It ignored the coronavirus testing kit prepared by the World Health Organization in favor of developing its own kit, giving the virus time to spread, detractors charge.

In light of that issue, the LDP plans to balance the beefed-up authority granted to a Japanese CDC with a focus on coordinating with the government and international organizations.

Tokyo has expressed plans to review the coronavirus response once the epidemic has ended. "After going through various experiences, we must fully investigate and think through what is the right organizational structure," said economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura.

Bloat, redundancy and other organizational problems would need to be addressed in forming a CDC. "Silo agencies already exist within the health, economic and environmental ministries, so creating a new organization will not be easy," said Fukuda.

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