Taking advantage of in-house and external collaboration,
we will deliver genuinely meaningful changes
in society to fulfill our responsibilities
in light of the coming new normal.
In this section, we present excerpts from a discussion with Dr. Kazuhiro Tateda, a professor at Toho University School of Medicine who also serves as president of the Japanese Association for Infectious Diseases and is a member of the government-led Expert Meeting on the Novel Coronavirus Disease Control. We invited Dr. Tateda to join us in dialogue in order to glean his insights into the role Denka should fulfill in a society undergoing drastic changes influenced by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Tateda: The risk of a global infectious disease pandemic has long been considered inevitable by many specialists. The recent emergence of the novel coronavirus saw their warnings becoming a reality, with an outbreak quickly developing into a worldwide pandemic.
A variety of factors have been put forward as allegedly facilitating a pandemic. For example, the separation of human development and the natural world has grown too narrow. It is believed that the excessive bulldozing of forests has led to a growing number of opportunities for direct interactions between humans and wild animals, where previously habitats had been segregated. The resulting exchange of the infectious viruses they host has allegedly caused certain types of viruses to evolve to acquire human-to-human transmission capabilities.
Also, global warming serves as a major risk factor. There is an undeniable possibility that the viable habitat of pathological organisms responsible for tropical and subtropical infectious diseases will expand going forward. We cannot know when the next pandemic will occur, nor can we determine if or when another novel pathological organism will emerge. Due to the increasing globalization of our society, a regional outbreak of an infectious disease can quickly spread globally, just as we have witnessed. Therefore, I consider ensuring thoroughgoing pandemic countermeasures to be a matter of crucial importance. As the spread of the novel coronavirus is still ongoing in regions around the world, human society will be forced to continue the grueling battle against this infectious disease for the time being.
Yamamoto: Dr. Tateda, could you elaborate on your thoughts on how we should counter this situation?
Tateda: The pandemic revealed two weak points in Japanese society. First is the country’s less than robust ability to carry out Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing, with the required equipment in extremely low stock at domestic healthcare institutions. Given the considerable risk of another infectious disease emerging, building up testing capacity is essential to ensuring our preparedness.
Second, although the obedient nature of Japanese citizens is believed to be helping prop up a medical system on the verge of collapse as the vast majority of citizens have been remarkably willing to respect the voluntary “Stay Home” protocols during the state of emergency, this trait has also created a negative effect, such as excessive peer pressure. Because of that, lamentable incidents of discrimination and prejudice have also been reported from some corners of society.
Yamamoto: So, the pandemic has revealed both positive and negative aspects of the unique Japanese character, has it?
Tateda: That’s right. It is important to learn lessons from what we have experienced during the pandemic, be it success or failure, to ensure our preparedness for the next crisis. We should not be content with merely getting through the current crisis. Rather, we should be focusing on how to upgrade our structure going forward. This will, in turn, help us acquire genuine resilience. Also, an endeavor of this kind must be carried out via collaboration involving industry, the government and academia.
Tateda: When the novel coronavirus first emerged, people had been overly afraid of it as it was a totally unknown virus. Since then, however, specialist insights about the virus have become ever more robust. Accordingly, it is time to consider how to sustain economic activities while simultaneously preventing the spread of infection. Due to the drastic deterioration of the economy, a growing number of people are losing their jobs and struggling to maintain their livelihoods. We must face this harsh reality, too. In order to genuinely protect the well-being of citizens, economic activities and infection countermeasures must go hand in hand. I consider it a matter of the utmost importance. I assume that, in the midst of the pandemic crisis, business corporations are similarly being called upon to identify a business model capable of simultaneously achieving profitability and contributing to people and society as a whole. This seems to be an important challenge they are currently expected to tackle. Is it correct?
Manabu Yamamoto, Representative Director, President & CEO
Yamamoto: Exactly. If we were to suspend our production and sales activities altogether, we may be able to completely eliminate the possibility of the spread of infection within our organization. However, such a precipitous move would amount to stopping the Company’s breath. It would simply cause Denka’s operations to cease. Instead, we are striving to embrace innovative working styles while redefining our mode of operations in a way that focuses on what is truly essential, as we seek to adapt to the new lifestyle and social norms brought about by the pandemic.
Speaking in general of the nature of Japanese people, they can be extremely sensitive to risk; but they also tend to quickly stop being vigilant once a crisis has passed. I think Japanese people are not so good at changing their mode of behavior based on takeaways from a crisis.
Tateda: In the field of medicine, a great number of papers have been issued right after major crises by specialists in countries abroad. This phenomenon is typically accompanied by a growing momentum of technological advances and the introduction of more sophisticated methodologies. In contrast, Japanese specialists seem to focus mainly on implementing robust countermeasures during crises.
By the way, business contribution to the preservation of the global environment is becoming the subject of growing public expectation. This issue is also relevant to the prevention of infectious disease pandemics. In this context, what are Mr. Yamamoto’s views on the positioning of Japanese corporations among their global peers in terms of technological capabilities? I have heard about Denka’s R&D efforts aimed at creating a variety of environment-friendly products, such as bioplastics.
Yamamoto: Many Japanese corporations boast a high level of environmental technologies even compared with their global peers. While the pandemic has revealed the weakness of globalized economic activities, businesses today are facing a growing shift in customer requirements from quantity to quality. To adapt to this change amid times like these, we need to rebuild our product portfolio by raising the proportion of specialty grades that are resilient against changes in the external environment.
Yamamoto: To date, the Denka Group has responded to infectious disease pandemics by delivering a timely and steady supply of vaccines and diagnostic reagents. In doing so, we have been helping the general public prevent the spread of infectious diseases for 70 years. Thanks to our involvement in these operations, our colleagues across the Group are well aware of their responsibilities to “protect people’s lives and well-being.” This is one reason why I am proud of them.
Recently, we restarted shipping diethyl malonate, reviving our production lines, which had lain dormant for three years, upon a government request to supply the raw material for Avigan®, an anti-virus drug expected to help treat novel coronavirus infection. Although we had only six weeks until the scheduled date of first shipment, none of frontline operators were opposed to the Company’s decision or balked at this challenge. As Denka is only domestic manufacturer capable of producing this substance, everyone knew that this task was uniquely bestowed upon it.
Tateda: That sounds wonderful. I think that employee aspirations supporting Denka’s concerted efforts to contribute to society should be known to a broader range of the general public.
Yamamoto: We have positioned our healthcare-related operations as one of the three priority fields that are subject to focused management resource allocations. To strengthen and expand these operations, in April 2020 we merged Denka Seiken Co., Ltd., a subsidiary, into Denka Company Limited. Although this move was already determined prior to the emergence of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the merger helped us swiftly make decisions and respond to the pandemic.
Takahashi: Amid the pandemic, Denka’s Life Innovation Division has been operating with a strong sense of mission to practice a policy of “respecting the dignity of life and protecting people’s health to remain a company deserving of society’s trust.” This also represents a mission upheld by and taken over from Denka Seiken.
The development of our rapid diagnostic testing kit for detecting the novel coronavirus antigen was launched in February 2020, several months before we obtained official approval for manufacture and sale in August. As this testing kit is intended to support doctors in private practice who have no access to costly diagnostic equipment but are often asked to quickly perform clinical diagnoses of patients with fevers, we employed the immunochromato-method, a popular method used for detecting such viruses as influenza virus, to develop the testing kit.
In the healthcare field, there must be considerable latent need for innovative pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. I believe that our ongoing efforts to assist medical practitioners and to support the well-being of patients will naturally position us to simultaneously achieve profit while contributing to society.
Yamamoto: Denka believes that corporate growth matters only if it also entails the fulfillment of the Company’s social responsibilities. In line with this belief, we have positioned the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the compass guiding our management approach centered on addressing ESG issues. Furthermore, the third of the SDGs, “Good Health and Well-Being,” coincides with our mission, which, as Mr. Takahashi discussed, has been upheld by Group employees for many years, even before the formulation of the SDGs. Because of this, I consider the shared sense of mission among them to constitute an extremely valuable asset and expect it to support our efforts to become a company that is genuinely capable of fulfilling its social responsibilities.
Tateda: I understand why you are proud of Group employees and what they have accomplished. I also assume that a sense of mission has significantly helped them realize their potential whether they engage in research, development or other duties.
Hideki Takahashi, Executive Officer, Life Innovation Division
Yamamoto: Not only do I give credit to employees for their dedication, I also appreciate the cooperation and support offered by external specialists like Mr. Tateda and others from academia and government agencies. Denka has been able to achieve the growth it has thanks to long-cultivated ties and lasting collaboration with people it has worked hand in hand with in R&D activities. In addition to meeting the expectations of our shareholders, we will continuously strive to live up to the trust of the aforementioned stakeholders in the course of corporate activities. In these ways, we will play our part in industry-government-academia collaboration aimed at creating and delivering solutions in the fields of medicine and infectious disease prevention.
Tateda: It is important to have a partner with whom you can work toward a shared goal. Moreover, working in tandem with partners from a broad range of sectors will help you speed up your endeavor. In addition, chemistry arising from external collaboration may help to generate unconventional ideas. Based on my experience as a researcher, inspirational insights often spring from teams of individuals who have differing ways of thinking, rather than homogeneous teams in which everyone thinks in the same way.
Yamamoto: In line with the Denka Value-Up management plan, we aim to become a “Specialty-Fusion Company.” In this regard, the merger of Denka Seiken is expected to better position us to utilize an even broader range of technologies and realize innovation. In addition, vigorous engagement in in-house and external collaboration is a requirement for a company aiming to grow sustainably. This approach is essential to swiftly effecting changes. To this end, we are currently developing a new framework supporting collaboration.
Takahashi: Specifically, the formulation of a “Health Tech Working Group” to be charged with interdepartmental assignments is now under way. Pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, which require official approval, are not the only things needed by frontline medical practitioners. We assume that there must be other areas in which Denka can bring solutions via the use of its materials, technologies and sales channels. Based on this assumption, we engage in information sharing with and proposals targeting medical practitioners.
Tateda: If you take a close look at medical front lines, you will come up with good ideas based on an accurate understanding of what is needed. Although a growing trend toward cross-sector collaboration and interdisciplinary research is similarly affecting the medical field, succeeding in these endeavors is, in reality, not easy at all. Collaboration of this kind does not occur naturally. Rather, it needs someone actively working to facilitate it. I have great expectations regarding Denka’s spontaneous efforts to facilitate chemistry arising from collaboration. As a medical specialist, I find Denka’s initiative to be quite promising and will gladly offer my endorsement.
Lastly, I have only one request of Denka. I would like the Company to keep working with medical specialists like me and play its part in contributing to the well-being of patients. I hope to deliver new solutions at the earliest possible date by working in tandem with Denka and other businesses as well as governmental agencies. I believe that by doing so, we will be able to see a breakthrough greater than what can be achieved by academia alone. Looking ahead, I expect the Company to make even greater social contributions by taking full advantage of its abundant potential in the fields of medicine and infectious disease prevention.
(September 17, 2020 at Denka’s Head Office)
Dr. Kazuhiro Tateda
• Professor, Department of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, Toho University School of Medicine
President, the Japanese Association for Infectious Diseases
• President, the Japanese Society for Clinical Microbiology
• Member of the Expert Meeting on the Novel Coronavirus
• Disease Control under the auspices of Cabinet Secretariat Headquarters for Novel Coronavirus Disease Control
In his efforts to disseminate accurate knowledge of infectious diseases and countermeasures against them, Dr. Tateda has appeared on television on a number of occasions and contributes to newspaper articles.
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