Japan fears COVID-19 variants are behind possible fourth wave


TOKYO, April 5 (Reuters) – Japanese health authorities are concerned that variants of the coronavirus are fueling a fourth nascent wave in the pandemic with just 109 days left until the Tokyo Olympics.

The variants appear to be more infectious and may be resistant to vaccines, which are not yet widely available in Japan. The situation is worse in Osaka, where infections reached new records last week, prompting the regional government to initiate targeted lockdown measures for a month starting Monday.

A mutant variant of COVID-19 first discovered in Britain has taken hold in the Osaka region, spreading faster and filling hospital beds with more severe cases than the original virus, according to Koji Wada, a government adviser on the pandemic.

“The fourth wave is going to be bigger,” said Wada, a professor at the Tokyo International University of Health and Welfare. “We need to start discussing how we can use these specific measures for the Tokyo area.”

Japan has twice declared a state of emergency that covered most of the country last year, most recently just after the New Year, when the third and deadliest wave of the pandemic struck. Officials are now opting for more specific measures that allow local governments to shorten business hours and impose fines for non-compliance.

Osaka canceled the Olympic torch relay events there, but Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has insisted that Japan hold the Games as scheduled. Suga said on Sunday that the measures employed in Osaka could be extended to Tokyo and other places if necessary.

There were 249 new infections in Tokyo on Monday, still well below the peak of more than 2,500 in January. In Osaka, a record 666 cases were reported on Saturday.

The true extent of mutant cases is unknown, as only a small fraction of COVID-19 positive cases undergo the necessary genomic study to find the variants.

A report from the Health Ministry showed last week that 678 cases of mutant variants from Britain, South Africa and Brazil had been discovered across the country and at airports, with the largest clusters in Osaka and nearby Hyogo prefecture.

But another strain, known as E484K, may be more widespread. About 70% of coronavirus patients screened at a Tokyo hospital last month carried the mutation that was different from the British and South African varieties, Japanese public broadcaster NHK said on Sunday.

The spike in cases came just weeks after the government lifted the state of emergency measures, and the priority measures being implemented now are intended to stop an unexpected increase in mutant cases, said Makoto Shimoaraiso, an official with the Cabinet Secretariat for the COVID-19 response of Japan.

“We accept criticism when people say we haven’t been able to detect any variant,” he said. (Reporting by Rocky Swift in Tokyo; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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