An expert panel under Japan's health ministry on Wednesday urged the government to take a "gradual" approach to a downgrade of COVID-19's legal status to the same level as seasonal influenza, saying robust coronavirus measures must be sustained.

Offering its view on the impact of making COVID-19 a Class 5 disease under infectious disease legislation, the panel said the change could end state treatment subsidies and the securing of hospital beds and that medical facilities should be able to see and admit patients when infections are high.

The government intends to use the advisory panel's findings when it considers downgrading the disease's classification in the spring. The minister of health, labor and welfare, Katsunobu Kato, sought the panel's views on the health care system, the coronavirus's infectivity and how likely it is to mutate.

Takaji Wakita, chairman of the coronavirus advisory panel to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, speaks remotely after a meeting at the ministry in Tokyo on Jan. 11, 2023. (Kyodo)

In its guidance, the panel stated that while death rates have fallen after the emergence of the Omicron variant and multiple vaccination drives, greater infectivity has led to more deaths. "It will take time for COVID-19 to become a disease requiring the same response as seasonal flu," said Takaji Wakita, the panel's chairman.

Japan is witnessing its eighth wave of infections and enduring record numbers of deaths from COVID-19, with a new daily high of 520 people nationwide reported Wednesday.

COVID-19 is currently categorized as a novel influenza infection on par with Class 2 pathogens, such as tuberculosis and avian flu, which are subject to extensive measures, including limiting movements by infected individuals and their close contacts.

At Class 5, no legal controls exist to isolate infected individuals or close contacts, nor are there measures for hospitalizing primarily older or high-risk individuals. State of emergency declarations would no longer apply to the coronavirus, and the government would dissolve its countermeasures headquarters.

Additionally, costs for COVID-19 care would, in principle, be borne by patients.

But the panel's recommendations state that even if COVID-19 were downgraded to Class 5, the government must offer care that does not create an excessive cost burden for patients, secure vaccinations depending on the state of infections and establish systems to track mutations and infection trends.

At the same time, members of the panel advised that controls on movements, including hospitalizing people with COVID-19, should be removed swiftly due to an "imbalance between their effectiveness and restrictions on people's fundamental rights."

Kaori Muto, a University of Tokyo sociology professor central to the panel's recommendations, said easing measures would lead to more loss of life. "There shouldn't be moves to set a target for acceptable numbers of deaths."

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