The health ministry said Monday that a mutated strain of COVID-19 first detected in the U.K. has been confirmed in three people in Japan with no history of visiting Britain. Infection routes are unknown for two of them, and they are believed to have been infected with the strain through community spread.

With Japan in the throes of a third wave of infections, the last thing it needs is the spread of a new variant believed to be up to 70% more easily transmissible.

Meanwhile, the government is scrambling to begin the rollout of vaccinations, but in a nation where many people are skeptical about vaccines, Japan may face a daunting challenge in convincing people to get the shots even when they are available, reports Osamu Tsukimori.

Japan to vaccinate medical workers at national hospitals first | NIPPON TV NEWS 24 JAPAN
Japan to vaccinate medical workers at national hospitals first | NIPPON TV NEWS 24 JAPAN

On Monday, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga tapped Taro Kono, minister in charge of administrative reform, to oversee the distribution of vaccines, reports Satoshi Sugiyama, as the government faces heavy criticism of its virus response efforts. The PM said the appointment was a reflection of Kono’s problem-solving skills in administrative affairs that span government agencies.

Sources said Sunday that the health ministry plans to collect data from people who become infected with the coronavirus even after receiving vaccinations to assess how vaccines may help prevent the spread of the virus. Currently available coronavirus vaccines protect people from getting sick, but whether or not they prevent people from becoming infected is not clearly known yet.

Monday’s (and Sunday’s) new COVID-19 cases by prefecture (50 or over): Tokyo 1,204 (1,592), Kanagawa 957 (795), Osaka 431 (464), Chiba 363 (428), Saitama 328 (433), Fukuoka 204 (300), Aichi 151 (218), Hyogo 149 (289), Hokkaido 125 (124), Kyoto 110 (154), Yamaguchi 88 (17), Tochigi 84 (54), Okinawa 67 (89), Ibaraki 63 (89). Source: Japan COVID-19 Coronavirus Tracker