Following a recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the central government and the Tokyo suburb of Musashimurayama agreed on Aug. 3 to start the operation of the first biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) lab in Japan, 34 years after the facility was completed.
Scientists are only allowed to study BSL-4 agents -- such as the Ebola virus and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever -- that are classified as most dangerous under the World Health Organization standards at a facility designated for BSL-4 research. A BSL-4 lab was built at Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases Murayama branch located in Musashimurayama, a suburban city of Tokyo, in 1981, but its operation has been put off and its work has been limited to BSL-3 agent studies due to opposition from local residents and communities.
Following the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa, however, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and the Musashimurayama Municipal Government in January this year started discussion over the possible activation of the facility with local residents and other concerned parties.
Health Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki and Musashimurayama Mayor Masaru Fujino met at the city hall on the morning of Aug. 3 and agreed on starting the BSL-4 lab on four conditions: the facility will prioritize safety and security for local residents; it will specialize only in necessary medical evaluation and treatment; the central government is required to inform residents on the usage status of the facility; and the central government will consider building other BSL-4 labs in other locations in the country.
Japan has been the only country without an active BSL-4 lab among Group of Seven countries. The health minister is expected to shortly designate the facility as Japan's first BSL-4 lab.
"I want to give my sincere thanks (to the mayor) for solving a concern regarding the country's crisis management," Shiozaki commented after the meeting, while Fujino said he was compelled to agree. "I pressed that the central government needs to take all possible measures for safety."
While Fujino says the municipal government has won the understanding of residents to some extent after having meeting sessions, some locals still oppose operation of the facility. The health ministry therefore plans to continue dialogue with Musashimurayama residents.
The facility has been used only to perform work on biosafety level-3 agents. As such, even if there is an Ebola case developed in Japan, the lab can only run a test to confirm the Ebola virus in a patient's blood, but it's not allowed to remove the virus and cultivate it for the development of diagnostic methods and treatment.
A BSL-4 lab was also prepared at Riken BioResource Center in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, in 1984, but has never been used as such a facility due to local opposition. Meanwhile, Nagasaki University signed a deal with the Nagasaki Prefectural Government and Nagasaki Municipal Government in June this year to establish a BSL-4 lab.