Delta coronavirus variant surges in Japan, Olympics spike expected
- Pandemic adviser says cases of the mutant strain are rising rapidly and that its progress suggests a new spike will occur just as the Olympics begin
- Development comes as the Japanese government considers whether to return to a full state of emergency
The number of new cases recorded in Tokyo on Wednesday came to 714, up 95 from one week earlier and above the 700 threshold for the first time since May 26. The daily tally for the week came to 508.4, up more than 20 per cent from the previous week.
The true picture is likely to be worse, experts admit, as a further 842 cases across the nation are suspected of being the Delta variety.
“I have to admit that the situation is very, very worrying,” said Kazuhiro Tateda, president of the Japan Association of Infectious Diseases and a member of the advisory committee set up last year to advise the government on how to handle the pandemic.
“We are seeing the numbers increase rapidly and our expectation is that by mid-July, more than half of all new infections will be of the Delta variant,” he said.
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Tateda insisted that health experts and the government now had a far better understanding of the illness and its methods of transmission, although he admitted that the government panel expected a new spike in cases at the end of July and into early August.
That, unfortunately, coincides with the Olympic Games, which open on July 23 and run for two weeks, followed by the Paralympics, which take place between August 25 and September 6.
“We are running at around 700 new infections a day at the moment and we anticipate that could rise to a peak of around 1,000 a day due to more people being vaccinated now,” he said.
“Yes, this timeline coincides with the Olympics, but this panel is focused on public health and delivering the most appropriate information available to the government, which then decides what to do with that information,” he said.
“The government has a difficult problem, of course, and the panel has made it clear that we feel it would be best to not have spectators at Olympic events,” he said.
The government announced last week that a maximum of 10,000 spectators would be allowed to attend events in the new National Stadium, although it has conceded that may have to change if the situation deteriorates.
The authorities appear to be bracing themselves for that, with Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister of economic revitalisation, saying earlier in the week that a new state of emergency may have to be declared if infection levels cannot be curbed.
At present, Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures are under what has been termed a quasi-state of emergency, with slightly more relaxed restrictions.
Health minister Norihisa Tamura attended a meeting of the expert panel on Wednesday and cautioned that a growing number of people appeared to be going out in the evening in major cities since the last full state of emergency ended on June 20. The statistics support suggestions that younger people are spreading the virus, with 201 of the 714 cases reported on Wednesday in people in their 20s, 132 cases among 30-somethings and 143 cases in people in their 40s.
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And while around 1 million doses of the vaccine are being administered a day, only 14.6 million of Japan’s 126 million residents have had two shots, less than 12 per cent of the population.
The government has scheduled a meeting of its health panel for July 8 and will listen to the experts’ opinions before making a decision on whether to keep Tokyo in a quasi-state of emergency, to lift the restrictions entirely or, if the situation has deteriorated significantly, to return to a full state of emergency, Tateda said.
“It is very unlikely that they will be able to end the restrictions completely, but whether they have to go back to a state of emergency depends on the situation at that point,” he said.
The timing of the government’s decision is unfortunate given that the International Olympic Committee has announced that IOC President Thomas Bach will be arriving in Tokyo that day. Bach is due to undergo three days of isolation as a precaution before taking part in meetings leading up to the opening of the Games.
The IOC, the Japanese government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the local Olympic organising committee have all insisted that the Games can go ahead safely if health guidelines are followed, although a majority of residents of the city are still opposed to the Games going ahead due to fears it could turn into a super-spreader event.