Speed up preparations to prevent spread of omicron variant in Japan

Infection cases with the new omicron variant of the novel coronavirus have been found in Japan. It is necessary to prepare quickly for a possible outbreak of community-acquired infections.

Two people, a Namibian diplomat and a man in his 20s who had been in Peru, were found to be infected with the omicron variant. They both were confirmed to be positive in tests at an airport quarantine station. The Japanese government has categorized everyone who traveled on the same planes as close contacts and asked them to quarantine at accommodation facilities.

The government has already taken steps to strengthen border control measures, such as temporarily banning the entry of foreigners and narrowing down the number of people entering the country.

In the Netherlands and Britain, the omicron variant has spread also to people who have not recently traveled abroad. It is important for Japan not only to take thorough border control measures, but also to implement domestic procedures for testing and isolation before it is too late.

There are many unknown factors regarding the omicron variant, including its infectiousness and pathogenicity. It is vital to analyze domestic and international information in detail and come out with effective measures.

With the number of new coronavirus cases in Japan remaining at around 100 a day, the testing system should have sufficient capacity. To prevent community-acquired infections, shouldn’t additional testing be implemented to determine whether those who tested positive are infected with the omicron variant?

For early detection, it is also important for every member of the public to cooperate. If people have symptoms such as fever, they must be proactive and take PCR tests or other kinds of tests.

There are still many questions regarding how well existing vaccines will work against the omicron variant, but Western countries have already been promoting booster vaccinations.

In Japan, the third round of vaccinations for medical workers has begun. People will be able to receive a third vaccine dose if more than eight months have passed since their second shot, but the government is reportedly considering shortening the interval. To avoid confusion, the government must thoroughly explain when and where the general public will be able to receive booster shots.

If there is a surge in cases, the government intends to establish a system under which about 30% more patients will be able to receive hospital treatment, compared to the peak period during the fifth wave of infections this summer. Cooperation with medical institutions will be necessary to ensure that the system will be ready for immediate operation.

Regarding the government’s response to the omicron variant, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry requested airlines to suspend new reservations for international flights to Japan for a month to limit the number of people entering the country, but soon withdrew the request. The withdrawal was decided to give consideration to Japanese expatriates who were hoping to return home during the year-end and New Year holidays.

Even though a trial-and-error approach is unavoidable because the government is dealing with a variant about which little is known, it is regrettable that the move gave the impression that there was confusion. It is hoped that the government will take prompt and appropriate action to eliminate public anxiety.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Dec. 3, 2021.