Contain spread of omicron variant to prevent a 6th wave of infections

A case of community-acquired infection with the new omicron variant of the novel coronavirus has been confirmed in Japan. Effective measures must immediately be taken to prevent the rapid spread of the variant.

The Osaka prefectural government said three people with no recent history of travel abroad have been infected with the variant. The three are family members and their infection routes are unknown. Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Shigeyuki Goto said, “This is a case that constitutes community transmission.”

Since its discovery in South Africa in November, the omicron variant has been spreading quickly around the world. It is said that the omicron variant is much more contagious than the delta variant, and that vaccines are less effective against it.

So far, there have been no reports that people infected with the omicron variant are prone to become seriously ill, but if there is a surge in the number of infected people, there are fears that the number of seriously ill people will also increase. It is important to take all possible measures to prevent the outbreak of a sixth wave of infections.

Following Britain, where infections with the omicron variant have been rapidly expanding, the United States has seen people infected with the omicron variant account for more than 70% of new coronavirus cases, a figure six times greater than that of the previous week.

In contrast, in Japan, where border control measures have been thoroughly implemented, some people who returned from overseas were found to be infected with the variant but community transmission of the variant had been contained. But from now on, there is no telling when or where omicron will spread. The government should make efforts through thorough tests to detect infected people as soon as possible and isolate them.

It is necessary to devise bold testing strategies, through such measures as distributing simple kits that allow people with symptoms such as a cough or a runny nose to test themselves, and requiring them to take more accurate PCR tests immediately if they test positive with the kits.

It is also necessary to continue to strengthen border control measures. When returnees from abroad happen to somehow be infected with the omicron variant, thorough measures should be taken to quarantine them at accommodation and other facilities so that they will not spread the variant around them.

At the peak of this summer’s fifth wave of infections, 130,000 people recuperated at home. This time, the government intends to accept infected people into hospitals and accommodation facilities. However, will the system to provide medical services for them be sufficient if omicron infections should expand?

The issue is how to quickly hospitalize patients whose initially mild symptoms deteriorate. The cooperation of local doctors and nurses is essential.

According to the government, a system has been established in preparation for a sixth wave of infections to allow 37,000 people to be hospitalized, up by 30% from the peak of the fifth wave. The government has also secured 3,000 doctors and 3,000 nurses who can be dispatched to help.

In Britain, however, the absence of medical personnel from work — mainly due to their own infections with the variant — has strained the nation’s medical system. It is important for Japan to anticipate such a situation.

It is said that antibodies effective against the omicron variant increase with a third vaccination shot. The government should make efforts to secure vaccines so that the people can receive additional shots as soon as possible.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Dec. 23, 2021.