Scientists investigate Japan’s remarkable COVID success in search of new vaccine

Scientists investigate Japan’s remarkable COVID success in search of new vaccine

Tokyo – notable of Japan coronavirus Resilience to the pandemic has spawned myriad possible explanations, from the country’s preference for going barefoot indoors, to the supposedly aerosol-generating nature of Japan’s quiet conversation, to its citizens’ beneficial gut bacteria. Even irreligiousness — which is said to have spared Japanese people exposure to crowded houses of worship — has been touted as a virtue in the age of COVID-19. Despite having the oldest population in the world, with nearly one in three residents aged 65 and over, Japan has had fewer COVID deaths per capita than almost any other developed country. As of Thursday, Japan had recorded just 246 deaths from COVID-19 per million people, surpassing even New Zealand (263), which initially adopted a zero COVID maximum suppression strategy. By comparison, the US has a cumulative number of 3,045 deaths per million people. But COVID mortality statistics alone, often based on inconsistent and/or incomplete records, do not tell the whole story. The researchers estimate that Japan had 111,000 “excess deaths,” more than five times the number of reported COVID deaths, when mortality from interrupted healthcare and social displacement are taken into account.

Japan’s excess death rate of 44 per 100,000 far exceeds that of South Korea (4), Singapore (-15), Australia (-37), New Zealand (-9); China (0.6) and Taiwan (-5). Even less affluent Vietnam and Thailand fared better. But compared to the US (179) and Europe (140), Japan still leads the way. Some experts believe that the glory for this relative success belongs, first of all, to Japanese citizens, for their part. willingness to cooperate with antiviral measures. “Japan’s approach to the COVID response has been primarily based on people’s efforts,” not on imposing mandates, Kenji Shibuya, research director at the Tokyo Policy Research Foundation, told CBS News. “These kinds of voluntary efforts, rather than draconian top-down measures, have worked.” Peer pressure to wear masks remains such a powerful force in Japan – even as the heat stroke season looms – that the national Ministry of Health has been forced to publish a brochure urging people not to wear masks when walking their dogs. , cycling, jogging or just walking to work.

An image from an online flyer issued by Japan's Ministry of Health in June 2022 urging people not to wear masks when walking their dogs, cycling, jogging or just walking to work as temperatures rise. of summer increase.  / Credit: Ministry of Health of Japan

An image from an online leaflet issued by Japan’s Ministry of Health in June 2022 urging people not to wear masks when walking their dogs, cycling, jogging or just walking to work as temperatures rise. of summer increase. / Credit: Ministry of Health of Japan

In addition to the near-ubiquitous use of masks, Japan’s vaccination program, which was initially delayed but quickly implemented, is credited with saving lives. Despite initial fears about vaccine hesitancy, two-thirds of all citizens and about 90% of seniors have already received booster shots. Japan’s generally healthy population has also helped it weather the pandemic. Life expectancy continued to expand for four decades, giving the Japanese the highest average lifespan in the world, at 87 years for women, 81 for men. While the obesity rate in the US has risen to nearly 42% in 2020, Japan has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world at around 4%.

Thanks in part to its universal health insurance scheme, rates of cancer and heart disease are also low. Like obesity, these diseases are major underlying risk factors for complications with a coronavirus infection.

Meanwhile, scientists are investigating a theory that the Japanese people may have an inherent advantage at the cellular level when it comes to fighting COVID.

People gather at Rinko Park during the Yokohama Harbor Festival, which was held for the first time in three years with no restrictions on the number of participants and less strict restrictions on the COVID-19 pandemic, in Yokohama, Japan, June 2, 2022 . / Credit: PHILIP FONG/AFP/Getty

People gather at Rinko Park during the Yokohama Harbor Festival, which was held for the first time in three years with no restrictions on the number of participants and less strict restrictions on the COVID-19 pandemic, in Yokohama, Japan, June 2, 2022 . / Credit: PHILIP FONG/AFP/Getty

Researchers at the state-funded RIKEN Center for Integrative Medical Sciences have honed human leukocyte antigens (HLA), proteins found in most cells in all of our bodies, as a potential antiviral defense. HLA markers are well known in the field of organ transplantation, where matching HLA types, not just blood types, is crucial to reducing the chance of organ rejection.

Riken’s study found that Japanese individuals with the HLA type A24, common here and in some other parts of Asia, develop “cross-reactive” T cells in response to seasonal coronaviruses, or common colds, which can redeploy themselves to kill COVID infections. -19 much faster and more effectively than in those who don’t have that specific marker. Shin-ichiro Fujii, who is leading the study, told CBS News that he has signed up to conduct clinical trials on a vaccine aimed at immunocompromised cancer patients that would mimic the benefit of having the HLA-type A24 proteins in people unable to develop antibodies. neutralizers. of existing vaccines. “The real hope,” he said in a statement, “is that we will be able to develop vaccines that can stimulate a strongly targeted reaction of T cells against infection. We have demonstrated that this may be possible in this specific HLA group, but we now need to look into other types.”

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