• Kyodo, Reuters

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Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Tuesday he has given up on visiting the United States and Australia for in-person summit talks before the start of a regular parliamentary session in mid-January and will focus on the COVID-19 response at home instead.

Kishida said he had been seeking to meet U.S. President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he aims to step up summit diplomacy this year.

“In light of the domestic and overseas spread of the novel coronavirus, I have decided not to make overseas trips before the regular Diet session this month,” said Kishida in his new year news conference.

Kishida said he will decide next week on whether to extend Japan’s tight border control measures for preventing the omicron variant from entering the country, which include a ban on new entries by foreign nationals.

“With the strict border control measures, we have managed to minimize the omicron variant’s entry into Japan, but infections are spreading in major cities,” Kishida said.

“We’ll prepare to shift the focus of Japan’s omicron response to domestic measures to guard against the worst-case scenario of a possible spike in community transmissions.”

In addition to antiviral pills developed by Merck & Co Inc. that are already delivered nationwide, the government will also aim to roll out “at the earliest date possible in February” Pfizer Inc.’s oral treatment drugs, the prime minister said.

As more oral drugs become available, Japan will allow more patients to receive treatment at home to avoid a resurgence in infections from triggering a shortage of hospital beds, he explained.

Japan is betting heavily on oral treatments to keep serious infections and deaths at bay should a feared sixth wave of the pandemic emerge. The government agreed in November to pay Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics about ¥138.9 billion ($1.2 billion) for 1.6 million courses of their drug molnupiravir.

“If a spike in infections lead to a shortage of hospital beds, we must flexibly consider ramping up curbs on activity,” Kishida said.

As for the travel subsidy program known as Go To Travel that his administration apparently wanted to resume soon to reboot the economy, Kishida said he will “think about it carefully,” adding that implementing measures against the omicron strain is his top priority.

The number of coronavirus cases in Tokyo exceeded 100 on Monday for the first time in about three months, fueling concerns over a gradual rebound in infections in Japan with the spread of the omicron variant.

A total of 993 omicron cases have been found in Japan as of Monday, including 295 cases considered to have involved community transmission, the health ministry has said.

On Tuesday, the Yomiuri newspaper reported that its own survey showed omicron infections in Japan had exceeded 1,000 cases.

Okinawa Prefecture has entered a “sixth wave” of the coronavirus, Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki told reporters the same day, citing the fast spreading omicron variant.

Okinawa reported 225 new virus cases on Tuesday, the highest in more than three months, said Tamaki, adding that infections within U.S. military bases in the prefecture continued to increase.

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