After three decades of opposition from local residents, it was decided Monday that a laboratory in Musashimurayama, western Tokyo, would be used to carry out advanced experiments on Ebola and other high-risk pathogens.
The laboratory, in a facility run by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, will be Japan's first BSL-4 or biosafety level 4 facility to start handling and researching dangerous live pathogens.
The decision was made in talks by Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki and Musashimurayama Mayor Masaru Fujino on Monday morning.
After the meeting, Shiozaki said he would designate a BSL-4 facility at the branch institute about a week later based on the Infectious Diseases Control Law.
The health minister pledged to create a framework whereby outside experts would perform safety checks, and also promised the facility would only be used for treatment and research and not for commercial purposes.
"This facility is essential for protecting citizens' lives and health," Shiozaki said. "I'm grateful to the citizens of Musashimurayama."
Fujino also told reporters after the meeting that the facility "will specialise in diagnostics and treatment necessary to protect the lives of infected people, so based on that premise I decided it must start operating."
Facilities without the state BSL-4 designation are prohibited from handling specimens of dangerous pathogens such as Ebola.
If a patient is suspected of having Ebola, virus specimens must be destroyed and the only test that can be performed is to check for an infection. A BSL-4 designation allows facilities to analyse live virus specimens, determine the species and trace transmission routes, which could help develop vaccines.
The facility at the Murayama branch was built in 1981 to function as a BSL-4 facility, but strong objections among nearby residents forced it to operate as a BSL-3 facility and handle viruses that presented lesser risks.
Talks have been ongoing to operate the facility a level higher when the health ministry made a request to the city to do so last November.
One factor that led to the approval of BSL-4 status for the Musashimurayama facility after more than 30 years is the increased threat of infectious diseases on a global scale.
The Ebola virus ravaged African countries last year killing more than 10,000 people. Several individuals who entered Japan were suspected of being infected.
With a BSL-4 facility, positive specimens in simple tests could be further examined, helping to speed up treatment planning.
Other dangerous pathogens could emerge in the future. Without this facility, Japanese researchers and pharmaceutical companies would not be able to play an international role in helping to develop therapeutic medicines.
City authorities decided to allow the facility to operate because they understood its importance.
As homes and schools are near the facility, residents will naturally feel nervous.
Some level of secrecy is necessary as protection against terrorist attacks and other threats, but the facility should strive to operate with as much transparency as possible.
The World Health Organisation classifies pathogens in four levels of risk, or biosafety levels, the highest being level 4.
According to Japan's Infectious Disease Control Law, only BSL-4 facilities can handle Ebola, smallpox, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, South American hemorrhagic fever, Marburg and Lassa.Speech