After a lull in new cases of COVID-19 that lasted weeks, concern is building again in Japan as more infections involving the omicron variant continue to emerge.
The country saw its first community transmission of the variant Wednesday when Osaka Prefecture detected the new strain in three members of the same family who have no recent travel history.
The three individuals — a male schoolteacher, a woman in her 30s and a girl under 10 years old — were hospitalized after developing mild symptoms including fever between Saturday and Monday, according to the Osaka Prefectural Government.
On Thursday, Kyoto Prefecture reported an individual had been infected with the variant with no traceable origin – the country’s fourth case of community transmission. The case involved a woman in her 20s who had not recently traveled. According to the prefectural government, she had come in close contact with seven others, two of whom tested negative for COVID-19. The rest are awaiting test results.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters Thursday morning that Japan is prepared for a domestic outbreak.
“Using the time we bought through strengthened border controls, we have accelerated efforts to enhance the process of prevention, testing and early treatment,” he said, referring to tightened travel rules put in place in late November.
Health minister Shigeyuki Goto said Wednesday he does not believe the omicron variant is spreading nationwide yet.
But experts are skeptical.
“While it’s difficult to imagine the variant is already spreading nationwide, the outbreak has already begun in several parts of the country,” said Shigeru Omi, chair of the central government’s coronavirus subcommittee, during a news conference Thursday.
“Once community transmission begins, there’s a risk it will spread rapidly.”
Takaji Wakita, chair of the health ministry’s expert panel and director of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, told reporters Wednesday that the cases reported in Osaka the same day are just the tip of the iceberg.
Also Wednesday, the health ministry’s expert coronavirus panel urged the central government to prepare for the variant to spread rapidly.
Community transmission of the omicron variant within the country “was a matter of time,” Koji Wada, a professor of public health at the International University of Health and Welfare and a member of the health ministry’s panel, told The Japan Times.
“The central government remains focused on protecting the border but it needs to shift to a different response under the assumption that the variant will spread domestically,” he said. That would mean pushing forward the rollout of booster shots scheduled for early next year, he added, and calling on designated hospitals to prepare for an outbreak now, rather than later when it might be too late.
“But that shift has not been made yet,” Wada said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told a news conference Thursday morning that, at least for the time being, officials are not planning to impose restrictions on the public.
As the holiday season approaches, there is concern that increased domestic travel will trigger a delayed uptick in infections, as was the case in January of this year.
While holiday travel may not be discouraged, earlier this week the central government moved to extend border restrictions into the new year and tighten quarantine rules for the few travelers that make it into the country. Under the latest border rules, in principle only citizens and foreign residents are allowed to enter Japan.
On Tuesday, Kishida said all travelers found to have been in close contact with someone infected with the omicron variant will be asked to isolate in a government-designated facility for 14 days.
Kishida said Tuesday that foreign visitors will be banned from entering Japan “for the time being.” Those restrictions were originally set to expire at the end of December.
As of Wednesday evening, Japan had reported a cumulative total of 160 cases of the omicron variant, with the majority of those detected through airport and quarantine testing.
First reported to the World Health Organization by South African scientists in late November, the variant has begun to spread rapidly in several countries around the world.
Scientists are still studying omicron, and while knowledge of this new strain is preliminary, initial research suggests that it could be more contagious but less deadly than the delta variant.
Preparations for a potential sixth wave of the pandemic were already underway before the first cases of the omicron variant emerged.
Japan began administering COVID-19 booster shots to medical personnel in December, with people age 65 and older slated to get their third dose beginning in January.
However, experts and public officials are calling for the timeline of the booster shot rollout to be sped up in light of recent events.
In an interview Wednesday with Bloomberg News, former vaccine chief Taro Kono said the central government should accelerate its booster shot rollout as the country appears to be on the verge of an outbreak of the omicron variant.
“Speed matters more than fairness and now omicron is coming in, so we should be doing it as fast as possible,” Kono said.
Based on the central government’s plan, most individuals will become eligible for a third dose approximately eight months after their second.
Kishida said earlier this week that he aims to expedite the rollout by allowing medical personnel and some elderly residents to get their booster shots six months after their second doses.
As of Wednesday, just 0.2% of the population had received a booster shot.
“Why wait for eight months?” Kono asked. “No reason.”
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