• Reuters

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Japan confirmed on Friday an infection cluster at an immigration facility in Tokyo as well as the spread of a new COVID-19 variant in the nation, outlining new challenges as it tries to overcome a third wave of the pandemic.

The new variant has been identified in 91 cases in the Kanto area of eastern Japan and in 2 cases at airports, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters on Friday.

The government is raising the level of vigilance against mutant varieties as they may be more resistant to vaccines, which Japan started to dispense this week.

“It may be more contagious than conventional strains, and if it continues to spread domestically, it could lead to a rapid rise in cases,” Kato said.

The new strain appears to have originated overseas but is different from other strains that have been found sporadically in Japan, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

Among mutations seen in the new strain is the so-called E484K mutation, on the spike protein of the virus, which has also been identified in some other strains and may undermine the effectiveness of vaccines.

Japan has so far identified 151 COVID-19 cases involving variant strains from the U.K., South Africa and Brazil, according to the health ministry. The nation has logged more than 400,000 COVID-19 cases in total, and 7,194 fatalities.

Meanwhile, 5 staff and 39 foreign detainees at a Tokyo immigration facility have tested positive for COVID-19.

All 130 detainees at the facility have been tested for the virus, according to a spokesperson for the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau. None of the cases are said to be serious, and all infected detainees remain quarantined from others.

The representative declined to comment on the nationalities of the infected detainees, citing privacy concerns.

Japan’s detention system for immigration law violators and asylum seekers has been widely criticized for its medical standards, monitoring of detainees and response to emergencies.

“Many detainees are locked in small, closed spaces,” said Motoko Yamagishi, the head of a migrants-rights group. “It is regrettable that such an outbreak has happened in the center.”

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