TOKYO (AFP) - A research lab in a Tokyo suburb will start handling some of the world's deadliest viruses for the first time, officials said Tuesday, after local opposition blocked it for decades.
Japan has no active maximum level-four biosafety labs so the move will bring it in line with other G7 nations - there are about 40 such sites worldwide including some run by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The Tokyo lab was built in 1981 and designed to handle the most dangerous known viruses, requiring scientists to wear full body suits with oxygen intakes to avoid contamination.
But local opponents feared exposure, arguing that the neighbourhood with schools and other community buildings would be at risk.
In response, the site was downgraded to a level-three facility where scientists can work with certain microbes such as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) virus and the bacteria that causes tuberculosis.
The decision to boost it to the highest biosafety level came as Health Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki signed an agreement with the mayor of the Musashimurayama suburb on Monday.
A health ministry spokesman said the upgrade would mean the lab could handle Ebola and the Lassa fever viruses, among others.
Healthcare experts welcomed the move, saying Japan trailed other countries - including the United States, France, and Singapore - and was hampered in its ability to contain deadly viruses in the event of an outbreak.
"Finally Japan has caught up with other developed nations," said Jiro Yasuda, a virology professor at Nagasaki University.
"Having an active level-four facility is a must to prevent infectious diseases" and develop vaccines and treatments, he added.
There have been several cases of suspected Ebola infection in Japan, but researchers were unable to analyse live viruses.
About 28,000 people have been infected with Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia since late 2013, according to the WHO, and nearly half have died.