New frameworks needed to contain spread of coronavirus variants

Novel coronavirus variants that are said to be highly infectious are spreading rapidly. Conventional countermeasures may not be able to curb infections. There is an urgent need to reformulate frameworks to contain the pandemic.

In Osaka Prefecture, variants are detected in more than 70% of cases screened for variants in the week to April 3. The so-called British variant was identified in most of the cases.

The British variant is said to be up to 70% more infectious than the conventional strain and is reportedly more likely to cause serious illness. In Osaka Prefecture, the number of cases has increased at an unprecedented rate. According to the prefectural government, more than 70% of hospital beds for seriously ill patients are occupied. This should be interpreted as a change in the situation.

Since April 5, the government has been applying so-called priority measures in Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi prefectures to curb the spread of the virus. The measures are similar to those applied in a state of emergency. The government has decided to extend the measures to Tokyo, Kyoto and Okinawa prefectures from Monday.

Signs indicate that the British variant has been spreading rapidly in Tokyo since the end of March. If the British variant becomes widespread in various regions, there is a risk of an explosive spread of infections. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has called on people to refrain from nonessential and nonurgent travel across prefectural borders.

The central government said it would increase screening to check for variants to about 40% of positive coronavirus cases, but many local governments have not been able to achieve this. It is necessary to expand screening swiftly.

The characteristics of the British variant should be explained to the public in an easy-to-understand manner. Are the existing criteria for being considered a close contact, such as distance from the infected person and duration of contact, appropriate? What measures should be taken in school classes and club activities? It is important to establish a countermeasure policy as soon as possible.

Utmost efforts must be made to secure hospital beds for COVID-19 patients. The government has asked prefectures to formulate plans for securing hospital beds by the end of April based on the assumption that infections could double. How much progress has been made?

The central government should not leave such matters up to local governments. It should monitor progress and provide necessary support, such as encouraging wide-area cooperation, including among neighboring prefectures if prefectures cannot coordinate efforts on their own.

In Japan’s third wave of infections, several people died while waiting for hospitalization or admission to recuperation facilities. Temporary hospital wards and recuperation facilities must be expanded swiftly before it is too late.

The vaccine secured by Japan, made by U.S. pharmaceutical firm Pfizer Inc., is said to be effective against the British variant. Speeding up the vaccination of the public is a top priority.

Many cases of a variant different from the British type have been detected in Sendai. There is a possibility that the effectiveness of the vaccine will be reduced for this type. The assessment of the impact must be hastened.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on April 10, 2021.