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Japan fears COVID-19 variants are behind the fourth possible wave

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(Corrects the translation of the quote in the last paragraph to reflect that the government official was accepting the criticism rather than acknowledging it as valid.)

Photograph Photograph: Pedestrians wearing face masks amid the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak seen behind cherry blossoms in Tokyo, Japan, March 18, 2021. REUTERS / Kim Kyung-Hoon

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese health authorities are concerned that coronavirus variants are leading a fourth wave of newborns in a 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 worst in Osaka, where infections hit new highs last week, prompting the regional government to begin blocking measures for a month from Monday.

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

The fourth wave will be the largest, said Wada, a professor at Tokyo International University of Health and Welfare. We need to start discussing how we can use these targeted measures for the Tokyo area.

Japan has twice declared a state of emergency that covered most of the country last year, most recently shortly after the New Year as it struck the third and deadliest wave of pandemics. Officials are now choosing more targeted measures that allow local governments to cut working hours and impose fines for noncompliance.

The city of Osaka canceled the events of the Olympic Torch Relay there, but Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has insisted that Japan will conduct the Games as planned. Suga said Sunday that measures used in the Osaka area could be extended to Tokyo and elsewhere if needed.

There were 249 new infections in Tokyo on Monday, still well below the peak of over 2,500 in January. In Osaka, the number was 341, down from a record 666 cases on Saturday.

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

A health ministry report last week showed 678 cases of variants from Britain, South Africa and Brazil had been detected across the country and at airports, with the largest herds in Osaka and nearby Hyogo prefecture.

All three have the N501Y mutation, and the latter two also have the E484K mutation. Authorities in Japan have found more than 1,000 cases that have only E484K.

This variant was present in about 70% of coronavirus patients tested at a Tokyo hospital last month, Japanese public broadcaster NHK said on Sunday.

The response to the cases came within weeks of the government’s lifting of emergency measures, and the priority measures now taken aim to stop a sudden increase in mutant cases, said Makoto Shimoaraiso, a Cabinet Secretariat official for the Japanese COVID response. 19.

Although we have seen (various scientific) indicators before lifting the state of emergency, there is some possibility of criticism that we should have anticipated the status of the variants.

(This story corrects the translation of the quote in the last paragraph to reflect that the government official was accepting the criticism rather than accepting it as valid.)

Reporting by Rocky Swift in Tokyo; Edited by Giles Elgood

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