• Reuters, kyodo, staff report


Japan has detected a coronavirus variant found in South Africa, the government said, the first such discovery in a nation that has already identified more than a dozen cases of another variant that is spreading rapidly in Britain.

A woman in her 30s who arrived in Japan on Dec. 19 was found to be infected with the new virus variant, the health ministry said on Monday. South Africa's health authorities have said the variant might be responsible for a recent surge in infections there.

The announcement of the detection of the South Africa-linked variant comes after the Japanese government on Monday started banning the entry of nonresident foreign nationals following the discovery of the U.K. variant in Japan.

The development comes as Japan continues to see rises in COVID-19 cases across the country, with daily cases hitting a record 3,881 on Saturday.

In Tokyo, 856 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed Tuesday, after reporting a record high 949 cases Saturday. Tuesday was the 15th straight day the capital recorded a new high for the day of the week.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga urged calm ahead of the new year holidays, when hospitals tend to be understaffed, and instructed ministers to remain alert.

"They say that no evidence is showing the vaccines that are already being administered overseas are not effective against this variant, and anti-infection steps for it are unchanged from those for the conventional virus," Suga said on Monday, referring to the new, fast-spreading U.K. variant.

He spoke ahead of the announcement of the detection of the South Africa-linked variant.

"The virus recognizes no year-end or new year holidays. I ask each minister to raise the level of their sense of urgency and thoroughly carry out countermeasures," he told a meeting of the government's task force on the coronavirus response.

A Japanese business traveler at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, where few people were seen, said the government should do more.

"Even though Japan is doing things to counter the variant, there are still reports of cases in Japan," 56-year-old Seiji Oohira said on arriving from India, where he works for a construction-related company. "So I think it's better to tighten the restrictions even a little bit further."

Cases of infections are reported also among politicians.

Yuichiro Hata, a 53-year-old former transport minister and the son of former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata, died of COVID-19 on Sunday, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan said, becoming the first incumbent lawmaker to succumb to the disease.

Hata began feeling ill around Thursday and was on his way to a hospital to take a polymerase chain reaction test Sunday afternoon when his condition suddenly worsened, according to people close to him.

He was found to have tested positive for coronavirus in an examination after death, according to the party.

Five lawmakers in the Diet have tested positive for the coronavirus thus far — Shuichi Takatori, Naomi Tokashiki and former science minister Naokazu Takemoto of the Liberal Democratic Party, Junya Ogawa of the CDP and independent Mitsuru Sakurai.

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