This Week in Asia

Japan battles coronavirus mutations, slow vaccination rate as it gears up for Tokyo Olympics

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"I'm not a nervous sort of person, but I have to say that the news about these new strains of the virus is worrying," said Tomura. "If you had told me we would be in this situation a year ago, I would not have believed you," she said. "I thought we would have found a cure, that everyone would have been vaccinated. I can't believe that things are even worse in Japan now."

Like many Japanese, Tomura is casting an envious eye at countries such as Israel and Britain which have achieved high inoculation rates.

"I know Japan has a much bigger population than those countries, but why are so few Japanese people receiving their vaccinations? Why have we been unable to do that?"

Japan started administering vaccines in mid-February, prioritising those working in health care and emergency services. To date, 1.2 million people have received at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab. This equates to about 1 per cent of the 126 million residents of Japan, compared to nearly 60 per cent of Israelis and 62.5 per cent in the UK. 

The inoculations, which are free, were extended to the over-65s from April 12, and will be rolled out to more groups as supplies become available.

Hakubun Shimomura, a senior member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, failed to raise the public's hopes on Monday when he said the vaccination programme will not be completed until next spring.

Kazuhiro Tateda, president of the Japan Association of Infectious Diseases and a member of the government's advisory committee to combat the spread of the virus, admitted that the delay in vaccinations was "unfortunate". 

"The US and other countries started preparing for a major health crisis some years ago as they saw the emergence of Ebola, Sars [severe acute respiratory syndrome], Mers [Middle East respiratory syndrome] and others, so they started work earlier," he said. "Japan never experienced those outbreaks, which was fortunate but also unfortunate as not enough preparations were made here."

Japan initially hoped that domestic companies would be able to develop a vaccine, but the pharmaceutical firms failed to find a viable solution, forcing the government to sign contracts with Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna.

And while millions of doses have been delivered to Japan, the painstaking approvals process means that only the Pfizer vaccine is presently being administered. Tateda said supplies of other vaccines had arrived in Japan, including the AstraZeneca version, and that they could be approved for use as early as the end of this month.

"We have seen side-effects in other countries and we have to make sure that these vaccines are safe," Tateda said, pointing out that Japan had experienced a number of incidents in which medications had unanticipated side-effects, including Thalidomide in the late 1950s and the HPV cervical cancer vaccine which was suspended in 2013.

The slow vaccine roll-out means there is "no chance" of enough of the population receiving a dose before the opening of the Tokyo Olympics on July 23, Tateda admitted. 

"There are less than 100 days left and we are now experiencing a fourth wave of infections," he said. "Herd immunity is not possible and I would say that the organisers will have to make a final decision on whether to go ahead or not in the next month. It is a very difficult situation." 

Yoko Tsukamoto, a professor of infection control at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, believes health authorities should have done a better job of testing people to identify asymptomatic cases to quarantine them. This is especially needed with the spread of the more virulent mutations of the virus, she added. 

"I look at other countries and they were quick to set up PCR testing centres in post offices, in libraries, anywhere they could to just identify those with the virus and then isolate them," she said. "Japan could have done that, but we just didn't. 

"For me, the health authorities just move too slowly," she said. "There is too much rigidity built into the system and no one wants to make a decision. It takes too long to reach an agreement on what is the best course of action, and by then it's too late. There is no flexibility and no one was willing to take responsibility for something like this, and this is the result." 

Tsukamoto said about 70 per cent of new infections in Osaka and 60 per cent in Tokyo are of the UK variant of the virus, which spreads more easily. Experts estimate that 90 per cent of cases will be the UK version by the end of the month. There have also been variants that were first identified in Brazil and the Philippines, while a mutation that is similar to the South African version but has subtle differences is now believed to be a Japan-specific mutation. 

On Tuesday, Tokyo reported 711 new coronavirus cases, up from 405 on Monday and more than double the average of 300 a day reported through March. On Monday, Osaka recorded 719 cases, the first time the daily figure had fallen below the 1,000 threshold since April 12. 

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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