Coronavirus variants are spreading rapidly in Tokyo and other areas set to be placed under Japan’s third COVID-19 state of emergency, with the N501Y strains forecast to account for over 90% of all new infections in Tokyo and Osaka and Hyogo prefectures in the first half of May.

The spread of that variant has been “faster than expected,” according to one expert.

Local governments are conducting polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for variants on some people found infected with the coronavirus.

According to the health ministry, the number of people infected with variants totaled 5,916 in 46 of the country’s 47 prefectures as of Tuesday. The figure shot up nearly 1.7-fold in a week.

The N501Y mutation has been found in British, South African and Brazilian variants. A genomic analysis showed some 95% of coronavirus variants in Japan are of British origin.

The National Institute of Infectious Diseases said the share of people infected with the N501Y variants in all coronavirus cases is estimated at roughly 30% in Tokyo and 80% in Osaka and Hyogo.

Although the proportion in Tokyo is currently relatively small, the substitution of variants for the original strain is “rapidly progressing,” a senior official with the institute said.

Coronavirus variants are also expected to spread at a rapid pace in Saitama and Okinawa prefectures.

The third state of emergency is set to cover Tokyo and the three western prefectures of Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto from Sunday, but Saitama and Okinawa will not fall under the declaration.

The N501Y variant from Britain is 30% more contagious than the original strain, an analysis has shown. It’s also believed to carry higher risk of causing severe symptoms.

An infectious disease expert who attended a health ministry panel meeting Tuesday night said the spread of variants surpassed the expectations of many.

Osaka and some other prefectures were put under quasi-emergency measures to combat the coronavirus earlier this month, the expert said. But the government failed to convey a sense of crisis to the public through the move, the expert added, concluding that the measures were “ineffective.”

The government “needs to reduce people’s contacts and movements thoroughly, by requesting closures of commercial facilities and other places as during the state of emergency from April last year,” the expert said, warning that Tokyo may be hit by a medical crisis similar to the one happening in Osaka.

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